What is freedom in the 21st century?
Do we have more freedom than in previous eras? Or does our idea of freedom blind us to reality?
Our sense of freedom
As children, we learn very early that there's things we can do and things we can't do, whether these constraints are imposed by our parents or imposed by nature, these constraints themselves shape our sense of freedom, and to a greater or lesser degree, our identity.
Moving through childhood into our teenage years, we push against these constraints as our consciousness expands and our awareness of "what's out there in the big wide world" intensifies. In my childhood I remember longing for the day that I didn't have to do what I was told, to go to bed early, to eat my vegetables or to do my homework.
So, in the western world we intrinsically connect the notions of restriction or limitation to being the polar opposite of freedom. In fact to even suggest that the two are not polar opposites can elicit some very confused looks from people.
To return to our child selves for one moment, imagine the parallel universe in which, as a child you had no boundaries, no rules imposed upon you. What would be the outcome?
Clearly the answer will vary from person to person, circumstance to circumstance, but would the you that had been bought up with boundaries and rules be better off than the other you that had not? Or visa versa?
Difficult one to answer, right?
More to the point, which of the two versions of yourself would ultimately be more free?
The present you and the future you
Ask most people if they are free and you will more that likely get an answer relating to their freedom right at that moment. However, everything we are in the future is the result of what we do right now, so things get interesting if we consider our freedom not just now but also projected forward into the future.
If I skip school today I get the freedom to ride my bike around on a school day, but what about poor old future me? future me will have quite likely had his freedom limited by present me, whether that's by getting lower grades or missing out on university or not getting into that dream career.
I say 'quite likely' as there is always the possibility that choosing to skip school, actually improves the freedom of future me. Maybe future me is inspired to become a world champion cyclist instead.
Our ability to project our thoughts into the future an predict the different outcomes of our choices is a key part of our intelligence. And intelligence, it seems likes freedom.
A recent TED talk by physicist Alex Wissner-Gross discusses a way of defining intelligence in terms of an entity making choices which preserves or increases that entity's future freedoms.
Viewed like this, its clear to see why children push the boundaries. This is our learning algorithm at work, reaching out into the world both literally and figuratively to discover what the world is.
What also becomes apparent is we need something to push against. Otherwise what is there to learn? Having no boundaries or nothing to push against is the equivalent of being in a vacuum. Fortunately, as the saying goes "nature abhors a vacuum". Even if we were free from any constraints made by society or family or law, we would still have nature to contend with. And nature rarely yields to our desires.
Limitation as freedom
Returning to my point about freedom and limitation not being polar opposites, we can see from the example of my present self skipping school that limitation in the present can mean freedom in the future. Furthermore, the notion of investing for the future is exactly this, accept some financial limitation in the present for some financial freedom in the future.
But there are yet other examples of this concept which are often overlooked, especially in the fast paced world we live in. For people in creative fields, limitation is often a source of inspiration. This may sound perverse, but in many creative fields the creator has too many options at their disposal, or too much freedom.
The infinite freedom of a recording artist sitting in front of a computer loaded unlimited virtual instruments, with unlimited recording time and endless ways with which to sculpt and modify the sound can leave the artist with nothing but a blank mind, a vacuum.
On the other hand, if she picks up a battered guitar and sings into an old tape recorder, she has to fight against the rusty old guitar strings to keep them from buzzing and not sing too loudly into the microphone to keep it from distorting. The vacuum disappears and she finds limitations and has to work with them in order to express herself.
We applaud this kind of struggle just as we applaud those who overcome adversity and live their lives regardless. It reminds us that living in a vacuum is not freedom.
The real boundaries
Sadly, in the 21st century, our notion of freedom is obscure. Firstly, many of our boundaries and limitations are self constructed, or at least, self perpetuated. Secondly, in a world drowning in media, PR, viral marketing, 'choice architecture' and corporate interests of organisations with more power than some nations, we are presented with a dazzling array of false choices.
As our lives fill up with having to make decisions for each one of our false choices, 'shall I buy the ultra-white toothpaste or the total health toothpaste', 'shall I vote for the blue party representing the privileged classes or the red party representing the privileged classes', we become distanced from the real boundaries in life. The boundaries imposed by nature and the boundaries imposed by ourselves. The former being ones we likely can't change, the latter being ones we often can.
The false choices presented to us, whether from a desperate government's monetary policy, or heavily lobbied corporate interests, provide little opportunity for growth and learning for the average person. In fact these choices often result in confusion through lack of consistency. Because, just like any conjuring trick, our attention needs to be carefully focussed in order for the false choice to appear as the only choice. And just like any conjuring trick they should leave the viewer puzzled as to what to believe.
Real choices, real boundaries and limitations on the other hand help people grow if they push and fight against them. This is where character is forged. Just like a dog needs to chew on something to develop strong teeth.
Society has developed in such a way that today, we often miss out on the real opportunities for learning and growth and in their place are confusing and unnecessary false choices which give the illusion of freedom.
This is having an effect not just on the developed world but also across the world as the agendas of the institutions which are most adept at controlling the media and public discourse have caused problems such as inequality, environmental issues, economic destabilisation, conflict and so on.
As humans, we possess the power of empathy and understanding and the ability to use these gifts to forge relationships, learn from one another, trade with one another, compete with one another; and in times of crisis, support one another.
This is what it is to be human, any choice or boundary or limitation which distracts us from this reality is imposing on our freedom.
Our freedom to be human.
If you like this post, follow me here @kbishop