I am going to defend a the following thesis: that we have
abandoned the ancient concept of freedom by
diluting it in the notion of power. Of course, language
is rich in polysemy and this is good, but not when it wipes
a deep concept in favor of another who already has
a proper name. If we take a look at the Cambridge dictionary we
see that freedom is
1.the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, whatever you want to, without
being controlled or limited.
2.a right to act in the way you
think you should
3. the state of not being in prison.
The Oxford dictionary says that freedom is
1.The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.
2.Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.
3.The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality
of being independent of fate or necessity.
4.The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. The state of not
being imprisoned or enslaved...etc.
To me, all these definitions point to the notion of power, to whether I can or can't
do something. Maybe you can't because you don't have money or because the state forbids
you, but it is all the time power. Now let's look at what the Cambridge dictionary
says about power:
1.ability to control people and events.
2.the amount of political control a person or group has in a
4.an official or legal right to do something.
We discard here the physical meaning of power, i.e.
the time derivative of energy. Let's look at the Oxford dictionary says about power:
1.The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.
2.The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of
others or the course of events.
From both dictionaries we can arrive to the following
conclusions: freedom and power seem to be basically the same
concept, but freedom seems to be more related with what I
can do or what the others allow me to do, while power seems
more related with what can I do to others. What
am I defending here is to give prominence to the third entry in
The power of self-determination attributed to the will.
The quality of being independent of fate or necessity.
In my opinion, this is the deepest meaning of freedom and
it has been widely lost. What follows is an attempt to
resurrect it and what implications may have in the context
of the free-software philosophy. Let's begin.
If I can or can't do something, the concept of power is already
sufficient to describe it. I can do something means I have
the power to do it. If I can't do it, it means I don't have
the power to do so. But what can I say, if instead of the
can/can't dichotomy, I ask myself whether I want/don't
want to do something? This is precisely the domain of freedom, the one who doesn't
equate to power. Power is about what you can/can't. Freedom is about what you
want. What you really want. If a person
in prison says 'I am not free', (s)he is in fact,
powerless, and this has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom would
be more about why is such person in jail? Why did (s)he act, if (s)he did,
away from the local law? Think
about it: when you want something, who is saying this? A voice in
your head? Is that voice exactly you? What if you want something and
at the same time you don't want it? What if you want it
today but not tomorrow? And the most important question:
what if what you want does not benefit you?
With this, we enter the world of manipulation, which is ubiquitous in
nature and also in the human world. As living beings, we
have many genes in our DNA, and as thinking minds, we are
full of memes in our heads. Both genes and memes have the
power of expressing themselves in the physical world in what
we call the phenotype of a particular set of genes/memes.
If the phenotype benefit a gene or a meme, it will persist
in time, through propagation, reproduction, from body to body, from
mind to mind... It is a very naive assumption to consider that
an organism acts only in favor of its own genes or memes.
Some species of small birds are manipulated by cuckoo babies.
Toxoplamosis, a bacteria, freeze mice as they face a cat. In this
cases, the behaviors are carried by little birds and little
mice, but they are in fact phenotypes of those who benefit
from it, cuckoos real parents who save the effort of feeding the child, or toxo bacteria
who can only reproduce in the bodies of cats.
Now let's go back to the question of what I want. I feel that I want to do something and I
act to accomplish it. But wait a moment! Perhaps someone has put in
my mind the seed of this will and what I seem to be wanting is in
fact the effect of someone else's manipulation! This is
where the main player of freedom in human minds comes into
play: critical thinking. Critical thinking is the
ability to tell myself 'OK, it seems I want to do this, but who is
getting some benefit or damage from it? Am I going to get
benefit? Who else? Am I going to get some damage? Will I
hurt someone else?' And it also asks about the long term:
OK', this seems to give some benefit now, but what about the future?
Maybe this will become a damage after some time.'
Now, if we go back to that Oxford's third definition, it
is much more meaningful now. If I am free, even if I receive
external influences, my action will be self-determined, and
oriented to my long-term benefit. To become free, one needs to develop a
strong critical thinking to fight and filter any manipulative force by
others. A person may be in prison but strongly free, while a
rich person, with a lot of power and apparent freedom, may be the slave of a weak
critical mind, hence a slave of the memes parasitizing her/his thoughts.
This is why I am fighting this cause: because
the modern concept of freedom is already the
concept of power, while the ancient concept provides
a depth that has been obscured in modern times. I
think that the reason of this loss is precisely the loss of
our own critical thinking. Without it, its very concept
also faints. Think about it. Examine the ideas in your mind.
Who have put them there and why. Analyze the topics you
studied at school. How many of them included critical
thinking training? How many of them tried to put in you
ideas that don't benefit you or that are detrimental to the world?
Try to analyze what you watch
on TV, what you read in newspapers, what you see in social
media... It is sad, but today we are mainly zombies repeating the
patterns that we have been taught or the memes we just heard.
A person with a strong
critical thinking is an odd rarity today. Of course, everyone
will think it's her/his case, because the difficult point
when you are brainwashed is that you don't think you are.
There is a wise quote saying that intelligence is a perfectly distributed
quality among people, because everybody think they have
enough. With freedom of mind is the same thing. It is a
humbling exercise to recognize that you are being strongly
manipulated, that most of the benefit of your efforts go
to someone else, and even worse: that without knowing it you
may be destroying Earth, by indirectly killing and
devastating day after day.
The first-world society is
designed in such a way that people in those rich countries are completely
unaware of this, and when they are confronted with the
evidence, they of course reject it. From a psychological
point of view it's natural to deny what you are not prepared
to know. And even worse, we have not been trained to endure
meticulous thinking, critical or not. Our brains are too
used to immediate rewards, and the prospect of having to do
a sustained thinking effort just to discover unpleasant
things is not a sweet for our reward-now brain. To be
free is a hard task. Its path is full of pain. That is why we
have even wiped its very concept from our Zeitgeist, from our collective set of ideas. We are
in love with the concept of superficial freedom (=power)
because it seems to us that having such power we can access
to more pleasures and endure less pains. But true power is
at least as hard as true freedom. What most people want is
to think they have freedom and power when in fact they are
not even in possession of their own will. For example, our
combined actions as a species are simply and crudely destroying Earth.
Is that what we want? Of course not. But are we changing our
actions? Of course not. Some people may be aware that a change must be done.
Are they going to move a finger? Of course not. Even in the realm of activists you
find environment defenders or pet lovers who are not vegan,
environment scientists who don't use their knowledge in
favor of what they study because their true goal is just to
publish and publish, free software developers and users who
don't seem to care about Earth, etc. These people have acquired partial
freedom but only very rarely they continue expanding it.
In the context of the Free Software Movement, we can read the excellent
article 'Free Software Is Even More Important Now' by Richard Stallman, and see
that he deals with four types of freedom, but none of them points to the ancient
meaning I am defending here. When we talk about free
software we usually refer to software that does not limit you
power on it. For example, Photoshop is a non-free program
that allows you to do many things and at the same time
forbids you to do others, and probably does things you don't want it to.
So it gives you power, but not full power, and you concede part of your power to it.
The word 'free' also means that you don't need
to pay for it, that is the funny thing with polysemy. You can have a non-free program 'for
free', i.e. you don't pay for it but it is not open source,
it limits your power using it, and it may have some potential power over you. We see that these
concepts of freedom are much more related to the meaning of
the word that equals power. Free-software means software
that gives you full power over it and frees you from the power they could exert on you.
However, the meaning I am defending in this article is more human-like. Programs, at
least for now, don't want things, so it is us, the users,
who are or aren't free. What I am going to defend is that free-software could also be
understood as software that helps you being free, or at least becoming more free.
If, for instance, I make use of a program
with ads, I know that I am giving some benefit to the
programmer or distributor. But I am also getting some
benefit from it. It can be seen as a symbiosis. But ads are channeling memes into my mind,
designed to manipulate me, so I may be giving up more power than I previously thought.
The philosophy of libre-software as it is, focusing on the power you have and the power you give,
is essential and I think everybody should move to support it. All the power should be given to the people. But... something important is missing in this philosophy. Something
related to the ancient concept of freedom, the one that needs critical thinking and
asking whether I want what I seem to be wanting. Think, for
example, programs like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger. They are, of course, not open
source and nobody knows what they do with the information
they manage. They can have back-doors, allow spying, selling
what you say to companies to target personalized ads to you,
etc. Anyone's guess! But at a deeper, psychological level, they make you a
junkie of instant communication. When used to instant
answers, you grow more and more impatient. When limited to
140 characters in Twitter, you grow more simplistic and start finding 1000 characters a too long
text. When you get used to videos, you can grow resistant to
read books. When cluttered with thousands of inputs, you grow
eager to dismiss important ideas if they don't sell
themselves in less than 3 seconds. And usually important ideas need hours, if not days, to be
properly understood. Notice how, on the one hand, they limit your power, and on the other hand
they weaken your critical thinking
and hence your freedom. Notice as well that the manipulative features targeting your
critical thinking could come, in principle, from an entirely free-software set, but it isn't usually the
case, except, maybe, when it tries to copy non-free approaches.
Big companies want you to spend your life, time and energy
staring at their sites. They want you to swallow their ads,
so they need you to put your focus there. That is why they
'perfect' their tools to a high degree, whereas free-software
usually has a half-finished touch, at least from an
aesthetic point of view. Non-free companies refine their
approach constantly, they study lots of human psychology to trap
you, to seduce you in the same way the cuckoo does to their
putative parents. Those companies would not benefit so much
from critical thinkers, so they want you as dumb as
possible. Free software may sometimes try to copy the big companies,
but it will never be designed to manipulate you. It would not make sense.
Non-free companies as Facebook or Google really hurt your freedom because they give you
great power, this is beyond doubt, but they make you a junkie of
such power to put further drugs in your mind once you are
addicted and dependent on it. Free alternatives appear, like
other search engines or free social platforms, but then you
reject them because they are not so fancy, and because
everyone is already there, in the big ones. That is the
trap. That is where true freedom, the ancient and forgotten
freedom meaning, becomes lost. And this is something that
the libre-software movement should be aware of, even though
I think it already is, tacitly. But its message should be more clear:
beyond the freedom (power) to access the code and the
freedom (power) to run, copy and modify, there is another,
more trascendent freedom, the freedom to be the owners of
our own will. The freedom to awaken from manipulation and
reject what is bad for us in the long term. The freedom to
deny those rewards that are sweet but bitter in the long term. The
freedom, in essence, to be aware of and decide who benefits
from our actions.
The Free Software Movement, in my opinion, should add to
its principles the rejection to weaken your mental code and the opposition to
debilitate your hardware, your own brain. It should detect those patterns targeted to
create addiction and not imitate them. A free program can provide an alternative to
allow communication, but should not overemphasize its efforts in developing hyper-communication
tools because they would contribute to the overall freedom decline. We don't need
'free' versions of every single non-free cyber-drug. Instead, we need to create tools that
non-free companies would never think of. Programs to enhance our thinking (critical or not),
to train us to be more selective and rational. Programs where ideas don't need to sell themselves in three seconds, where calm, reason and thoughtfulness are promoted. Software for kids, for activists that need diffusion of their voices. Software to channel uncorrupted news and to attack their corruption, to
allow everyone to have access to free information. Programs to give prominence to what is and remains important instead of just what is new... In essence, free-software is
great and extremely necessary, but we also need free-software that prevents the weakening and promotes
the enhancement of your freedom. That would be the perfect team.