September 11, 2019: Fall Symposium

Individual freedom versus the hidden persuaders

Many policy experts support socially engineered nudging, that is, have governments use a set subtle behavior reward algorithms to control people’s behavior for socially desirable outcomes. Yet the utilitarian attractiveness of such an undertaking obscures the implications for individual freedom and human choice. Cultivated among others by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the idea of nudging is often seen as a way to produce positive social outcomes without the reliance on formal regulations and policing. Yet the fact that the process is often below the level of clear observability by the people being nudged raises important questions about the role of manipulation and, even more, potentially morally compromised governmental authority. Beyond the immediate philosophical and free will implications are the questions concerning what would happen when these techniques are taken to an extreme. There are many questions about the cost of dissent in today’s society as measured in ruined lives of those who fell out with social media activists. We must ask what it means to allow oneself to be “nudged” “for one’s own good”, i.e., how one is allowing oneself to be shaped by “soft” governmental and other programs. The implications for democratic practices, not to mention individual choices, are obvious.

We don’t necessarily need to speculate about this question as the government of the People’s Republic of China is already going about implementing such a program, with few limits. If practically all dimensions of one’s life becomes a universal Skinner Box, which seems to be the ambition of elements within China’s government and their “visionary” counterparts the US and elsewhere, what can we say about free choice and individualism (and even personal character and a sense of community) under these circumstances?

The intersection of these practices, increasingly on a global scale, is an algorithmically guided experiment in human behavior and social control without precedent in human history. It places us squarely at a crossroad. The direction that we as a civilization take has grave implications for intellectual inquiry across the humanities and beyond, reaching into the realms of computer science, political equality, privacy, ecology, and individual rights and autonomy.

Organized by:

  • Profs. James E. Katz, Juliet Floyd and Russell Powell, Boston University

Sponsored by:

  • The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar Series

Co-sponsored by:

  • Division of Emerging Media Studies and the AI Research (AIR) Initiative, Boston University; The Consulate of France in Boston

Event DetailsDate: September 11, 2019
Location: Boston University Hillel Center, 213 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215
Time: 10AM – 6PM

Papers Due: August 11, 2019; presented and critiqued at conference. Peer-reviewed publication to follow.
Direct questions to: Dr. James Katz,
Download the Fall Symposium Program

The event is also being live-streamed on our Facebook and Instagram pages.


The Division of Emerging Media Studies within the College of Communication at Boston University brings together voices of scholars, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers through interdisciplinary symposia. Through lectures, conferences, and workshops, EMS aims to stimulate thought-provoking discussion and debate on issues related to technology and society. By drawing on empirically informed insights in the realm of communication and social media, problems confronting our society can be more effectively addressed. These technologies offer increased freedom and opportunities but also pose an unprecedented threat to human liberty and autonomy, so a well-informed public is more vital than ever.