Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Meditation on Freedom in the Age of Information

Knowledge, it is said, is the most valued commodity. Indeed, “knowledge is power” is not simply a metaphor; it is a pragmatic truism. In practical terms, we define something in terms of its effects. Knowledge is measured by what can be achieved with it, and so can be defined in terms of those achievements. Consider how teachers test their students' knowledge: they give them tests, thus equating the knowledge itself with the ability to pass a test. Knowledge is not some ethereal set of thoughts or ideas; it is the skill set that gets us from point A to point B. Power, in the most abstract sense, is the ability to achieve. And so knowledge is, by definition, power.

Knowledge is also information, and can be defined in terms of what information can do. Ours is the Age of Information. The ability to manipulate information is the ultimate quest of the day. But this is not an historical oddity. It’s not like people in the past cared less about information. Not at all. They cared about information, and indeed wanted to manipulate it, just as we do; but their relationship to information was quite different.

The progress of cultural evolution has been an evolution of processes for negotiating differences. (A culture is nothing more or less than a relatively stable set of processes for negotiating differences.) The word “information” refers to whatever facilitates such processes, from technological innovations to familial customs.

It was just a matter of time before cultural progress reached a breaking point, and the speed and efficiency with which information was generated and transmitted became uncontrollable, swirling and eddying beyond the confines of any one individual’s, community’s, or culture’s understanding. The Age of Information is thus marked, not by the importance of information in human life, but the emergence of information as a system of organization that has escaped the boundaries of any particular culture. And so, one trait of the Age of Information is the rapid deterioration of cultural boundaries and identities.

One can no longer reasonably believe that all of the culturally transmitted knowledge available to them can ever be fully mastered and overcome. Nor can we any longer believe that cultural progress, or even cultural identity, can be measured easily, with straight lines.

Growing up in the information age means, among other things, becoming acclimated to a world of ideas which will inevitably and persistently overwhelm us. A world in which our own identities perpetually transcend their cultural roots.

On the one hand, the efficiency and stability of our cultural progress is at stake. On the other hand, our psychological well-being is also at risk. We should not be surprised if the uncontrollable and overwhelming body of information at our fingertips creates a fair amount of psychological friction and even turmoil. After all, our ancestors survived and reproduced because they were able to master their culture. There were always new facts to learn about the way the world worked, but the rules that defined human relationships were more or less clearly stated and managable. This is not the case today, and it might never be the case again. Our brains and institutions are not equipped to handle the overly saturated world of information, a world in which the rules and procedures of negotiating differences are forever beyond our grasp.

We cannot comprehend the volume of information that is out there, or the speeds at which it is transmitted. It would take unimaginable technological developments to devise a computer system that could efficiently manage, evaluate and implement the available information circulating today. It may never be possible, and according to some people that’s a good thing. They doubt that such a management system would be worthwhile.

It is said that one of the great values of this information frenzy is the uninhibited way in which information can circulate. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a system or political body which could be trusted to control every aspect of information flow. He who controls the world’s information controls the world. While some people may want to put the world in one set of hands, many people believe we’re better off letting the information go.

But couldn’t there be some form of universal information management that would actually make the world a better place?

Is the best information society one without any regulations at all? Or is it one that is regulated in the best way possible?

Indeed, isn’t the idea of a completely free flow of information just an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because the idea of freedom makes us comfortable? The truth, after all, is that nothing is absolutely free. Information may not be controlled by a central government or single body, but it is controlled and manipulated nonetheless. Without centralized authority, the flow of information is controlled and manipulated by rogue, disjointed bodies. Those bodies are policed by national and international agencies, but the policing strategies and tactics are anything but well-developed.

Nobody wants to live in a society without rules, just as nobody wants to have to learn about the world without any received wisdom to guide them. The unfathomable mass of information circulating today needs rules. There must be methods for sifting, organizing and implementing our ideas, and such methods will inevitably (and thankfully) limit our freedom, and the freedom of our ideas.

People tend to criticize or resist anything that might compromise their beloved freedoms. Yet, while the slogan “Absolute Freedom” is likely to win over many a crowd, it doesn’t stand up to reason. Freedom is always relative and limited. I may have the freedom to dye my hair purple, but I don’t have the freedom to walk through walls. I don’t have the freedom to be 18 again. I don’t have the freedom to believe that 2 + 2 = 83, or that clams are mammals. My thoughts and actions are not absolutely free.

In fact, the more restrictions on our freedom, the more efficient we are. Of course, there must be balance. If our bodies were too limited, we couldn't do the things we want and need to do. If our thoughts were too restricted, we could never learn new skills or ideas. More often than not, however, people do not celebrate the restrictions (with the notable exception of marriage, high divorce rates notwithstanding). Instead, they tend to celebrate freedom for its own sake. This is a mistake, one often and unfortunately capitalized on by politicians.

Could you imagine doing anything productive with your mind if you were free to believe anything at all about the world? If nothing inhibited your tendency to believe one thing over another? Or do you see the value in having your thoughts regulated by certain principles, principles which make it impossible for you to accept certain statements as being true?

Beliefs are regulative principles. They determine how we think and act, and they thus limit our freedom. If it weren’t for such limits, our "freedom" would be useless. What makes our freedom valuable is not the lack of limits, but the fact that our limits can be regulated and improved. We are free to discover new ways of doings things, new facts and ideas which can be transmitted, and which can limit our freedom in better and better ways.

The unprecedented speed and efficiency with which information is created and transmitted today is not wonderful because it lacks regulation or control; rather, it is wonderful because it opens up the horizons for new forms of regulation and control.

It would be too easy to conclude that culture as we know it is going extinct. What is more accurate, perhaps, is that culture is evolving in unpredictable and complex ways, and our roles are no longer clearly defined. This is liberating, but also dangerous. We must work to establish a future for ourselves and our children--not in the name of freedom, but in the name of humanity.