Technology and Freedom [Freedom, part II]

In my earlier post, I suggested that we could look at freedom from three perspectives, and I will get back to that at the end of this post. But I want to also look at the way that the ideal of freedom has been affected by technological shifts.

The environment of nature has always put limitations on freedom in that it has always required certain behaviors and disallowed others: there have always been “laws” in nature that we do not have the freedom to surpass. The environment demands a certain amount of food, air, water, work and rest, regardless of how those things are achieved. Nonetheless, so long as no person interferes, the natural difficulties which arise are shrugged off as amoral, merely luck and not much to account for. By this understanding, freedom as an ideal is only limited when human laws get in the way, not when disaster, illness, accident or other natural causes do. This classic American vision of freedom at first seems to contain a Rousseauian assumption that a social contract is unnecessary, that life without a social contract consists of individuals who leave one another alone and seek out what they need in relative peace.

However, such a viewpoint is radically at odds with a world of business. In order for industry and technology to grow, for capitalism to achieve its goals, it is vital that networks and groups – companies and corporations – are formed, compete and grow as well. In fact it seems that the 19th century assumption is more Hobbesian in its premise but just draws a different conclusion: life without a social contract is nasty, brutish, short – and totally awesome. The fewer rules prescribed, the more battles must be fought, but this is a benefit rather than a cost, and the “collateral damage” of those lost in the fight is worth the rise of empire.

But all of this becomes more complicated as technology expands. While nature provided limitations that could not be denied, the freedoms of individuals allow for the alteration of nature and new rules are put into play. In other words, the environment of a contemporary person is less limited by natural factors than by the structure of society. Unless born into specific circumstances, a person cannot simply start hiking, foraging, farming or hunting to survive. Instead, to afford food, shelter and transportation it’s necessary to take part in the economy, and this is thanks to the revolutionary changes put into place by businessmen. Thus the freedom to do anything leads, through technology, to particular limitations for the citizen. It is not the forces of government that put those rules into place, but the forces of invention; even Amish communities allow themselves limited use of certain technologies just to be able to survive (once local resources like lumber get used up and trading becomes necessary).

In other words, society takes over for nature as the primary environmental setting in which people live, and the needs and options are determined according to social rules. The very basics – a job and a place to live – come with various strings attached, and many other aspects will seem necessary to the majority as well, things like the right sort of clothing, cable TV, household appliances, a diamond ring, a nice car, or an iPhone. Conveniences and achievable luxuries in life change expectations until it is assumed that everyone ought to be taking advantage of their availability, and they become simply “the norm”. The more such social roles become defined, not just according to gender or family but also generation, musical preferences, political parties, brands or stores, and all manner of interests, the more identity is socially secured, and freedom is harder to reach. (While one may be free to break social norms, it is always easier for those with resources than those without, as social approval is usually needed to get a job, and in any case social acceptance is a constant component of life choices.)

To return to the three aspects of freedom I discussed in part one of this post, we can link back to a classic trichotomy: one could think of these forms of freedom as elements of the true, the good and the beautiful. The first form, freedom as what you are physically able to do, describes what is actually possible and factual—but truth as potential, through the lens of technology, is an active and relative descriptive. What is possible is always becoming, not a final determination. As technology grows, even nails in coffins are looked upon like puzzles that might unlock.

The second, the choice an individual can make, is clearly in keeping with the history of the good, the right, or the legal. This too is entangled with the changing options of a world with new identities and roles. Goodness has always been perspectival in practice given the necessity of conflicting interests, even if certain thinkers have maintained belief in an ultimate form, but here it takes on a Sartrean component—what is good is whatever you are willing to live with. The individual bears the burden of complete freedom to make moral decisions, as even those who claim absolute answers can at best be “one absolute answer among many.”

Finally, the notion of what is most beautiful or appealing to the soul includes freedom in another way. Here it is the feeling of freedom as an emotion being connected to the feeling of beauty. Kant’s theory of beauty speaks of aesthetic judgment, or the mental sensation of recognizing something as beautiful, as a “free play” between imagination and understanding. Since the understanding is the ability to conceptualize or see things as belonging to categories, beauty is the ability to go beyond that and experience the item in a way that breaks free from rules or standards. Although it is merely concerned with a direct experience of the environment, and not the meaning of one’s larger social role or way of life, there is something analogous about beauty and freedom in an anarchic sense.

Altogether, then, the larger idea of freedom seems to combine an awareness of an unknown future, the weight of responsibility, and the sense of excitement of breaking out of routines. Which aspects are people worried about? It is probable that when spoken of in theoretical terms, it is the second one, a moral freedom to determine one’s own values, that is cited most, but when referred to simply as a broad worry, there are aspects of the other two as well—a sense of fear that opportunities just won’t be available or social constrictions will hold us all hostage.

In fact, I think a strong case could be made that it is that third one, the aesthetic of freedom, that drives concerns about losing freedom. And of course, the more determinations are made to assure factual freedoms, the less the aesthetic of freedom has any place. In reality, the aesthetic of freedom includes tragedy, pain, and risk – it includes competition and even violence – but the volatility inherent to this sensory freedom is at odds with the stability and reliability expected from guarantees and laws, even those that protect freedoms. Freedom writ large cannot be simply defended, but has to be understood as a whole variety of different issues and desires that can be taken in turn.

If the post-Industrial age has brought with it new problems of freedom, they are not tied to certain policies but a much more complex series of historical and technological changes that has produced roles not of family members or craftsmen, but of consumers and servers – roles heavily tied into an economy rather than a community.

  1. I enjoyed your article, clear and well written. You have nicely articulated the complexity of a topic in a contemporary relevant way. I fully agreed with your view and appreciated the contexual balance you put on a very difficult topic which is usually explained either over simplistically or too abstractly.
    Thanks for it.
    Doug Treen

  2. I like what I read here. As the world gets more artificial it also get more superficial, pretending to care. To expand the freedoms technology has bestowed on us, so that more are included, we have employed superficialities like politically correctness, affirmative actions and human rights.

    In a way it is good that the world is evolving this way, artificially and superficially, because the natural and rational ways have alone never worked.

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