"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Freedom is a wonderful concept.
When people hear it invoked their minds and hearts swell with the positive connotations they associate with that profound, but not profane, F word. It is for this reason that “freedom” is a term that is trotted out with such frequency by a thousand different – and often opposing – ideological stances. When, in the course of an argument, “freedom” is brought up it takes the burden of building a convincing case off of the one who used the term and allows them to count on the term simply resonating with something in the listener. After all, even amongst the grimmest cynics or darkest clad nihilists one is unlikely to encounter a person who is going to disparage freedom, even if (or especially if) they actually hold the term in contempt.
Granted, freedom can actually be rather tricky to define, and any appeal to a dictionary definition will result in a staid and lackluster result. Freedom (and its conversational cousin “liberty”) are ideas for which we all have personal definitions that go beyond what can be easily trimmed and formatted for inclusion in a reference volume. This is one of the reasons why one often finds freedom, and other closely related concepts, as topics that thinkers and artists wrestle with over the course of entire works (if not entire careers). The point of this somewhat meandering introduction is to foreground a premise, namely: when you hear the term “freedom” being tossed about, and when you feel the allure brought by that term, be on your guard.
Or to put it much more bluntly, ask yourself: “the person talking about freedom right now, are they selling something? When they say “freedom” how are they defining it?”
There are few areas right now where such a critical position towards the use of the word “freedom” is as important as it is when one hears “freedom” linked to technology (and the Internet). Particularly as those of the “technology will solve every problem ever, including the problems technology exacerbates” crowd are quite fond of breaking out the term “freedom” to do the difficult theoretical work in their arguments. This is not to flatly deny that technology (and the Internet) can have liberating potential, as Herbert Marcuse put it (in “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”):
“technics by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil” (Marcuse, 41)
But the fact that technology can “promote…liberty” does not automatically mean that technology can (or should) always be seen as being linked to the promotion of freedom, after all, it can “promote authoritarianism” just as easily. Though for those whose company’s financial future is linked to the spread of technology one can understand why there would be a desire to play up the “liberty” aspect. Even if it emerges with laughable convenience that what “promotes…liberty” also promotes the values that are best for their bottom line.
Of late the tech world has seen a renaissance of seemingly socially responsible statements from executives – who are perhaps starting to realize that “The Californian Ideology” only appeals to their acolytes. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org initiative is one such attempt to put self interested corporate strategy in the garb of humanitarianism; however, Google’s Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman) and Jared Cohen (director of Google Ideas) know how to talk up the connection between the Internet and freedom in a dazzling manner – as was clearly on display in their recent New York Times op-ed “The Future of Internet Freedom” (March 12, 2014).
The contribution to the “paper of record” by Schmidt and Cohen was rather predictable and was enough of a rehashing of things the two have said, and written, before as to make it worth wondering whether or not the op-ed was actually generated by an algorithm. Though, to be fair, that would probably have made it more interesting. The op-ed was a standard run-down of the way that “repressive nations” censor Internet access in their countries, how this limits “freedom,” how the next decade will see even more people gaining Internet access, and why it is important for governments along with the private sector (and NGOS) to fight online censorship. Throughout their piece Schmidt and Cohen pepper their discussion by mentioning various online platforms that are frequently censored while pointing out useful platforms for dissidents, before summing it up with the beautifully muddled lines:
“Given the energies and opportunities out there, it’s possible to end repressive Internet censorship within a decade. If we want the next generation of users to be free, we don’t see any other option.”
What makes the above lines interesting is that the first sentence is the dissonance between the wholly appealing first sentence and the odd second sentence. For the second line – instead of bringing home the final point – should remind the reader to take a step back and consider why appeal might be rather problematic. After all, is it not rather convenient that what promotes freedom and what is good for people the world over is also synonymous with what is good for Google (and its pals)? The “we” in the second sentence is meant as a stand in which includes the reader, but it just as clearly is the “royal we” of Google – in other words (and to edit a bit) “if Google wants the next generation of users to be free to use the Internet as Google wants it, Google doesn’t see any other option.” Granted – to return to the earlier discussion – here it is important to think about what Google means when it uses the term “free.” So what does Google mean by that? Based on the actions of the company we can easily define it in two ways: firstly, Google wants people to be free to use Google products so as to feed Google more information; secondly, (though linked to the first point) Google uses the term “free” and “freedom” as they are often deployed these days by multinational corporations as a stand in for “free market capitalism.”
Beyond this there are many aspects of Schmidt and Cohen’s appeal that seem to suppose that this is still early March 2012 – before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA made it clear that “a repressive grip on the Internet” does not just come from the standard trove of “repressive regimes.” Case in point, Schmidt and Cohen discuss TOR at several points in their op-ed and yet fail to mention that amidst the documents passed on to journalists by Snowden was evidence that the US government had attempted to target TOR users. Likewise, major Internet companies (including Google) have been targeted by, used by, and have cooperated with repressive regimes – they have complied with demands for censoring search results and have turned over user data.
It is easy to understand why a repressive or authoritarian regime might want to go after Internet companies like Google, and why such regimes may see an opportunity to enhance their own power in the Internet. Tech companies have built an information gathering apparatus that would make historical spymasters (who are remembered as villains for a reason) extremely jealous. While he can frequently be found writing pieces praising the Internet and freedom, Eric Schmidt also has something of a bad habit of dropping one liners about how Google knows just about everything about Google users. Who can forget this gem from Schmidt:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
For Google (and its ilk) have dossiers on people so thick and detailed that it would make the heads of most intelligence agencies blush – granted, in Schmidt and Cohen’s piece there is no awareness that this in and of itself may be part of the issue. After all, such a recognition might require people to consider if realizing the “liberating” potential of the Internet might require reining in the reign of some of the largest Internet companies. This is especially worth considering when one takes into account the rampant consolidation that has been seen of late wherein various tech firms buy up their rivals at every turn. Schmidt and Cohen seem to recognize that there is a tension between “authoritarian” and “liberating” uses of technology, but their goal is to obfuscate the issue so that this becomes a matter of governments and not at all linked to an issue about the technology itself.
As has been previously noted “freedom” can be tricky to define, and overly simplistic definitions should be approached suspiciously. Yet it is in offering a more nuanced understanding of this concept that the philosopher Simone De Beauvoir (in The Ethics of Ambiguity) eloquently captures a helpful definition and a useful way of thinking through the matter of freedom and technology:
“to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future;” (De Beauvoir, 91)
Such insight is useful when considering technology as it rhymes (not literally) with the earlier quotation from Marcuse – for there is certainly reason to think that technology allows people to “surpass the given.” Nevertheless it is the idea of “toward an open future” that is particularly important. In the age of Big Data, constantly shifting Terms of Service agreements, consolidation of major tech firms, and close collusion between government spy agencies and huge multinational corporations the question of the “open future” is essential. Or, to pose this as question: can we truly speak about technology and “an open future” without recognizing that the platforms that promise us “freedom” are closed, proprietary systems, steered by those who proudly tout how much information they have compiled on us? At the very least it is a question worth pondering. For the ability to choose and branch out may very well be constrained by emerging technological systems. There is a certain humor to the ease with which existential philosophizing nicely fits with discussions of technology and freedom, and thus Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialism is a Humanism) also provides some useful thoughts in this regard:
“that you can choose whatever you like, is simply incorrect. In one sense, choice is possible; what is impossible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must also realize that, if I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice.” (Sartre, 44)
What the above lines show, in relation to this contemplation of freedom and technology, is that while technology may pose a staggering variety of choices, once technology is chosen our ability to “choose whatever” is quickly constrained. From predictive search, to the inability to truly get all of our information out of a system, to constantly shifting terms of service agreements, once we make certain choices our ability to make fresh ones is hampered. This is particularly problematic when considered in comparison to the “open future” – for what is beginning to take place is that tech companies are making more and more of the choices on our behalf, and – keeping in line with Sartre – this decision “not to choose” itself becomes a “choice.”
This is at the core of Schmidt and Cohen’s op-ed, that tech companies like Google can be trusted to make these choices on our behalf – after all, we’ve already chosen them, and as they buy up their rivals they make it ever harder for us to choose other options. Because there simply are fewer and fewer options. The vision of the “open future” put forth by Google is ultimately limited to an extreme degree for it cannot bring itself to envision a future that does not involve Google. Even if thinking about a genuinely “free” Internet requires thinking that maybe huge multinational corporations noting everything you do is contrary to your freedom (“free” as in “toward an open future” not in “toward more money for shareholders and executives”).
We live in a world that is convulsed by technological change, and we scarcely have time to adjust to one jarring blow before the next one comes at us. But technologies, and the companies behind them, do not stand outside of society in a privileged position of neutrality. Rather, the technologies that rise to prominence are reflections of value systems that already run rampant in a society – thus it should be no surprise that in a country infatuated with the “free market” that the same market forces should be trying to define what “freedom through technology” looks like. While all of this, of course, necessitates never asking if “freedom through technology” can exist without acknowledging that sometimes there needs to be a consideration of “freedom from technology.”
The modern faith in technology trumpeted by its evangels sets many people up for a situation in which abstract notions like “freedom” are simply turned into abstractions. Part of what one detects in the hymns of praise to technology and freedom sung by the likes of Schmidt and Cohen is a desire for people not to have to recognize the degree to which technological systems have so far been doing as good a job (if not a better job) bringing about problems as bringing about solutions. We find ourselves in a situation captured by Theodor Adorno (in The Stars Down to Earth) thusly:
“Society is made of those whom it comprises. If the latter would fully admit their dependence on man-made conditions, they would somehow have to blame themselves, would have to recognize not only their impotence but also that they are the cause of this impotence and would have to take responsibilities which today are extremely hard to take.” (Adorno, 154)
What is on offer when the likes of Schmidt and Cohen suggest more technology as the solution is a suggestion that we can choose to let companies like the one they helm handle these “responsibilities which today are extremely hard to take.” They would be delighted to take on those responsibilities, and would probably even come up with some shiny new toys to help them you better manage your “freedom.” And they will be happy to do this so long as the discussion of “freedom” never turns around to ponder what these companies actually mean when they invoke freedom.
Technology companies want you to be open to the future, but this is not synonymous with wanting you to have an “open future.”
Adorno, Theodor. The Stars Down to Earth. Routledge Classics, 1994.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Citadel Press, 1948.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology.” Technology, War and Fascism: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, volume one. Routledge, 1998.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. Yale University Press, 2007.