On SOPA and freedom

by Tom Albrighton 19 January 2012 Digital and social

I don’t quite know what to think about SOPA and PIPA. On the one hand, it’s clear that the phrasing of the legislation does admit an interpretation that could be used for censorship, directed by commercial interests – and the idea of suing a blogger for linking to copyrighted material is ludicrous. On the other hand, it’s hard to get past the frantic scaremongering and me-too moralising of the social web. Is this what we want to protect?

The concept of freedom

For me, it’s striking how the anti-SOPA narrative enlists the concept of ‘freedom’ to its cause. It’s such a contentious word, freighted with multiple meanings.

In China, for example, ‘freedom’ might mean the freedom to own your own property, or to criticise the government.

In the US, the idea of ‘freedom’ is used by thinkers on both left and right to bolster the case for rights or obligations in every area from foreign policy and homeland security to birth control and digital IP. We can see its versatility, and its almost mystical resonance, in classic slogans such as ‘Freedom is not free’ and ‘Information wants to be free’.

Contrasting the ‘free world’ with post-Communist China highlights the fact that freedom is a matter of degree, or historical perspective. The slave’s idea of freedom is different from the millionaire’s.

However, they both share a strong desire to hang on to whatever freedoms they have. Once we have a freedom, of whatever sort, we hate to give it up. And the more emotion or morality we can instil into our concept of freedom, the powerful the case we can make for keeping it.

Digital freedom is recent

Younger readers may need reminding that the freedoms we take for granted on the internet have only existed for a few years. There was a time when social media did not exist, Wikipedia did not exist and ‘sharing’ consisted of downloading Coolio at 1.5k/s through a creaking modem while your partner moaned at you to get off the bloody phone.

The era of which I speak is not the 1750s, but 1995. Digital freedom is very new. We have very quickly got accustomed to it, and naturally now take it for granted. But I would argue that we are only just beginning to see its effects. And they’re not all positive.

Physical and mental freedom

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki contrasts two sides of freedom: physical and mental.

[Americans] have an idea of freedom which concentrates on physical freedom, on freedom of activity. This idea causes you some mental suffering and loss of freedom. You think that you want to limit your thinking, you think some of your thinking is unnecessary or painful or entangling; but you do not think you want to limit your physical activity.

More cryptically, he reflects:

If you seek for freedom, you cannot find it. Absolute freedom itself is necessary before you can acquire absolute freedom.

One interpretation of these words is that freedom to do something is not the same as the freedom to be something. Indeed, freedom to do things may hold us back from being what we want to be – or what we should be. This calls into the question the idea that more freedom is always a good thing.

Like children, we may need to have our freedom limited in order to grow up. More subtly, we may need to learn which freedoms are worth having, and which we don’t really need to use, or hang on to – even though we can.

Glutted and clotted

Again, it’s a question of context and degree. For the orphaned child solider in the Congo, more physical freedom is urgently required; the freedom to share screengrabs on Twitter is off the radar. But if you already have more than enough physical freedom, you might want to consider whether grabbing more freedoms will necessarily help you – or anyone else.

SOPA will put a stop to me profiting from Walt Disney's IP, and rightly so

In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds characterises the modern-day relationship to culture as ‘glutted/clotted’. There is, he argues, simply too much stuff. Thanks to digital media, it’s too readily available and too lightly gained to have any value. Like the Sorceror’s Apprentice, we got what we wished for, but it’s overwhelming us: we’re drowning in content.

And, so far from being warmly appreciative of our new ‘freedoms’, we’re actually more like spoilt children – desultorily flitting from one web page to the next, always skitting over the surface, always going somewhere else. Social media amps everything up even further, adding unwelcome overtones of peer pressure, anxiety and compulsion (see How social media ruined our lives).

Less content, more appreciation

If we want to preserve our mental balance in the face of that onslaught, we need the same thing that a Zen practitioner needs: not more freedom, but more discipline.

For us, navigating the digital sea means choosing a destination and staying on course, or we’ll be tossed about by myriad undercurrents of distraction. For the modern office worker or student, perpetually beset by seductive digital baubles, concentration may be the key skill that separates the achievers from the wasters.

I absolutely don’t endorse the power of Big Media to dictate our private habits. Nor do I place my trust in government as the arbiter of cultural consumption. However, bad actions can sometimes have good consequences. If SOPA does happen, and if it does lead to a lot less content being out there than before, perhaps we’ll rediscover what is really valuable in our culture. And that doesn’t mean the shallow ‘freedom’ to ‘share’ content in ways that we’ve recently grown to like, but its deeper essence – what it really is, always has been and always will be. The medium is not the whole of the message.

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