On the death of free will, mobile phones help put the spotlight on our predictable lives

Nature reports that researchers at Northeastern University and Dana Farber Cancer Institute have arrived to the conclusion the world might be flatfor technology, goods and finance, but for us, old-style human beings, we are still a sedentary and not-that-far-reaching crowd (Understanding individual human mobility patterns).

We want to think we are special and that free of choice governs our decisions, but at the end of the day we are just predictable things, and if potentially our possibilities are unlimited, social, personal and professional constraints limit our lives to a 10km radius. Or at least that’s what the Bostonians say.

At the moment I am reading Critical Massso I found the article quite interesting. For their research, Marta C. González, César A. Hidalgo and Albert-László Barabási studied the trajectory of 100,000 anonymous mobile phone users whose position was tracked for a six-month.

[They found] that, in contrast with the random trajectories predicted by the prevailing Lévy flight and random walk models, human trajectories show a high degree of temporal and spatial regularity, each individual being characterized by a time-independent characteristic travel distance and a significant probability to return to a few highly frequented locations. After correcting for differences in travel distances and the inherent anisotropy of each trajectory, the individual travel patterns collapse into a single spatial probability distribution, indicating that, despite the diversity of their travel history, humans follow simple reproducible patterns.

The authors continue to stress the importance of their conclusions for “all phenomena driven by human mobility, from epidemic prevention to emergency response, urban planning and agent-based modelling” but it also made me think about how much I loath routine, and no matter how much I try to avoid it, I end up always going to the same places and doing the same things.

So, we can all go on the out-of-the-norm African safari or Coral Reef diving with sharks, but those events just reinforce the tails of the Gaussian curve that our life is. These events or activities are as statistically unlikely as staying at home for a month or being relocated for the summer to a different town. to make things worse, mobility patterns started to come up after just two months.

It all reminds me when I was in the army and I used to spend all my free time on technical and fundamental analysis of stocks and hanging out in front of the screens at the small Barcelona Stock Exchange. But one day I just fell out with what I then realised was a fictional world made by man, for man and with a massive problem of asymmetric information. It is like the GDP growth of the last years, it didn’t exist, since we didn’t produce more, we just financed consumption with debt that now needs to be paid back.

Of course the synthetic life we think we have to live brings memories of the old story of the Mexican fisherman:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, ‘only a little while.’

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, ‘but what do you do with the rest of your time?’

The Mexican fisherman said, ‘I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.’

The American scoffed, ‘I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.’

The Mexican fisherman asked, ‘But, how long will this all take?’

To which the American replied, ’15-20 years.’

‘But what then?’

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. ‘When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.’

‘Millions.. Then what?’

The American said, ‘Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.’

They make us think that WE are different, and this research paper shows that in a credit crunch and debt-laden world the circle closes again and the average Portuguese or Canadian citizen is as likely to have the same routine life as the average Ghanan or Banglaseshi farmer or in fact, our ancestors.

Our lives are just far more complicated and stressed, but thanks to advances in medicine, they keep us alive long enough to hopefully match the livelong happiness of a Polynesian wood carver with a far lower life expectancy. If only that really happened.



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