On [Searching] Autonomy

This is the last part of a 3-part series on autonomy. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. This part outlines a contextual topology of autonomy while exposing the politics beneath the rhetoric.

Anuj Das Gupta
Sep 8 · 14 min read

1. The Meaning of Autonomy

1.1. The Experience of Autonomy

Autonomy does not exist out in the world, an objective phenomenon, pi in the sky. It is always already in relation to others whether one is perceived as autonomous. In the absence of others, one neither has or lacks autonomy.

The question of autonomy is not whether one is or is not autonomous but whether one’s peers recognize one as such, for it is only through the reflexive awareness of another’s recognition of one’s role, that one experiences oneself as autonomous.

This makes autonomy, as a category, more epistemic than ontic; it reveals itself by way of an “as-a” relationship over an “is-a” (am-a) relationship.

1.2. The Topology of Autonomy

When a country recognizes a particular state as having decisional autonomy to a certain degree (such as by way of the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution), it means anything because of the presence of other states and the federal District of Columbia, who are all competing for the ultimate decisional authority.

While autonomy expresses itself as both an autonomy-from and an autonomy-to, the former stands to be its originary movement in terms of proving one’s legitimacy as autonomous.

Protestors in Hong Kong asking China to respect its autonomy
  • Preventive: There could be a government shutdown such as the US federal government shutdown (of 35 days) from midnight EST on December 22, 2018, until January 25, 2019, where the government was not enabled to do much, but it was still autonomous from other countries since they could not run its government on its behalf.
  • “No state can prevent another state from deciding on their own” — Is closer to the truth since what a state can do to another is a social realty

1.3. Autonomy contra Automation

A contrast to this language of autonomy can be found in the language of automation, which is an individualistic and an enabling one. Automation, as a category is more in the kinetic space than in the political one, as it deals with being able to run by itself — clockwork perfection.

While the meaning of autonomy is to be found in the non-interventionability from others in one’s life, the benefits of autonomy are geared for oneself over others. For automation, its the other way round, in that, its meaning and benefit lies in itself and others respectively.

Slavery is when we denigrate the autonomous to act as an automation.

1.4. Automation with Autonomy

Automation and autonomy are not islands to each other, they are in constant dialogue, re-shaping each other in a world with evermore technological automation.

  • ask ourselves at what cost, are we willing to acknowledge its autonomy from the underlying protocol

1.5. Privacy and Autonomy

Computer viruses hook itself onto another program and get itself executed when that program is executed, thereby, not needing anyone to explicitly execute it. It is not even possible to execute it intentionally since viruses keep their existence hidden, they operate in stealth mode. This makes it out of reach for regular users to prevent its execution as well. It executes all by itself upon the triggers as instructed by its code.

Both for its execution and for its lifespan, it’s hidden nature ensures that it is unstoppable, except for an antivirus software capable of detecting and eventually removing it. The computer virus exhibits one form of autonomy, one where the autonomy is gained by staying hidden from those wanting to and capable of intervention.

There are positive sides to this form of autonomy, as found in private socio-legal orders in a plural jurisdiction. Consider the freedom to practice any religion in one’s own home as long as one keeps it in one’s home, much like the popular adage, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” or the Vegas Principle. One’s need for privacy should be proportional to the possibility of getting intervened when doing the same thing in public, while ensuring that one can keep all of the collateral within that space, with no spilling over.

1.6. Sovereignty and Autonomy

There is another form of autonomy, one that does not require its working to be hidden. Consider a car that can place an ad to rent itself out, and then use the service fees to repair itself — provided no rider can obstruct its autonomy. This does not mean a car mechanic can not obstruct its autonomy when it has to take it apart but can only do so if the car has reported the damage. The car mechanic will be operating under a mutually agreed-upon contractual relationship, one that acknowledges each others’ autonomy.

When certain peers are autonomous from each other with no superiors to take the autonomy away, those peers are then classified as sovereign but only within those members; and when that applies to every member of the network, it is a self-soveriegn network. There are no indivdual self-sovereign members in a network, it depends on the condition of autonomy between every member.

Autonomy does in no way make hierarchies irrelevant, on the contrary, hierarchies reinforce autonomy by enforcing the autonomy of those under it. Self-sovereign in a network each peer is autonomous from the other, where there are no hierarchies.

2. The Question of Autonomy

2.1. The Politics of Autonomy

If I was the same rank as you, that would deter me from meddling in your business. Otherwise, having a rank is useless. And if I tried to meddle, you can always appeal to someone of a higher rank to settle the matter.

The question who is autonomous from whom is one of who others are as autonomous as others, as well as who all are more autonomous than us.

Between players of the same rank, if there be no clear power structure defining their roles and privileges, it’s all up for grabs as to who is worth how much to whom. Autonomy does not remove hierarchies, rather, it demands to stay within hierarchies of appeal and enforcement when resources are shared between equally autonomous entities.

The ones with power-over (the higher rank ones) do not have to be people, humans or living entities as we usually think, but could be a rule or set of instructions as commonly agreed upon by the peers, much like a holy book as the word of the G-d or the Rule of Law, or the consensus rules of a blockchain.

However, even in those cases, it is people who are to decide the meaning (as argued in the §2.2 of Part II of this series) interpretive hacks like what lawyers do, framing the law in terms of which section comes before and where are the commas) of such a code.

2.2. The Specifics of Autonomy

An adult human is considered to be autonomous, but that does not mean that it does not have to follow the socio-political rules of the society she lives in. In fact, because adulthood is conceived of as the state where one is mature enough to follow the rules, the reward of which, that adults acknowledge a certain degree of autonomy towards each other as peers. This means every adult agrees to be brought under arrest when breaking a given rule.

You are autonomous to the extent that your peers are unable to replace you, take your place, become you. Each one us have multiple areas of autonomies, where each area is founded on its own peer group with overlaps in between and their own set externalities they have to depend on.

If we claim that a blockchain-based software is autonomous, we must specify

  1. What is the Conditions (checks-n-balances by way of rules) under which its autonomy is upheld?
  2. Who are the Superiors who can obstruct that autonomy?
  3. What are the Externalities necessary for that autonomy?
  4. Which of its parts are not autonomous?
  5. Which of its parts need to be private from what other parts in order to hide from getting intervened?
  6. At what cost of running the autonomous software, are we willing to make sacrifices to its autonomy and how so?

Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

Anuj Das Gupta

Written by

Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

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