I’ll stop with this one, I promise. But it is in some ways where I should begin. That freedom is an interesting problematic obviously has little to do with whether or not anthropologists can wield it as a concept (that’s just me deferring to the putative audience here). Rather it is a simple empirical fact that freedom–both as slogan and as a thing–is relentlessly present in global society–and especially in the domains of high tech science and engineering. The ideological use of the slogan to brand just about anything is (should be) fair game for many different scholars of contemporary discourse (see e.g. Wendy Chun’s work). But as a starting point, consider only the image to the right, which collects 9 pages of logos that use “freedom” to sell something.
These uses come from both the left and the right, and they have a certain visual consistency to them: images of upheld arms, liberated birds, broken chains are nearly ubiquitous. When a logo emphasizes a flag, a gun or an eagle it is more obviously right-leaning, when it uses a sans-serif font, the color green, or a raised fist, it is more likely a left-leaning cause. Revealingly, the same experiment with the word “liberty” is much more uniform in the use of red, white and blue, the statue of liberty (especially her spiky hat… what is that called anyways?) and only occasionally a broken bell. This analysis could all be done much more expertly, I’m certain, though it hasn’t really been. (Though I can’t resist mentioning a smorgasbord of a book by Svetlana Boym which is obliquely engaged in such a project of cultural and visual analysis).
But what such an analysis tells us is that freedom has a particular ideological role in the process of our collective deliberations and arguments in the global media-scape. In it’s most cynical version, the talk of freedom is simply a particularly effective mask for other interests. I am quite positive that linguistic anthropologists could capably explore the uses of sloganry like this, should they want to, and perhaps even expose something interesting about the reliance on the term; or explain how it differs from others like justice (scales anyone?) equality (rainbows and equal signs?) or sustainability (green, green, green and circular).
However, this sloganry, I submit, is not the only thing–or the most important thing–happening when people speak about freedom. There are also a very wide range of attempts to make freedom occur in the world. This is not about the word or its discursive use, fascinating though it be, but about the practices, technologies, organizations and events created in order to bring freedom into existence–to make freedom doable. I submit that many people in the world who use the word freedom both believe in it as a concept and are frustrated by its jingoistic use, and so are interested in finding ways to make it real and pursuable as a problem.
Which is to say, they are all asking, just as anthropologists might, “what exactly do you mean by freedom?”
Many such people may not even use the word freedom, probably for exactly this reason, even though they remain concerned with the problems of justice, agency, non-interference, non-domination, arbitrary power, causality and responsibility or other components of the concept of freedom. But many groups do earnestly label their efforts this way: Free Software, the Freedom Box, the Freedom Fone, Freedom to Tinker, Freedom to Read, Freedom to Connect, Free Speech TV, Free Culture, Freedom to Marry; and that’s just the tip of a large frosty beverage.
All of these things are specific projects or goals (unlike ‘free trade’ or ‘free markets’ which have somehow gone on beyond meaning anything at all). Some of these things, like the Freedom to Marry campaign(s) are straightforwardly activist and focused on specific policy issues. “Freedom to Marry” is strictly equivalent to “Right to Marry” and so involves the expansion of precise legal rights in specific jurisdictions. Something like “Free Speech TV” is focused on bringing freedom into existence (in the what seems like a roundabout way, really) by “inspir[ing] viewers to become civically engaged to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable society.”
But several things of this sort (most obviously “Free Software”) are in fact specific attempts to create freedom in non-policy senses. They are not (principally) about changing laws, or engaging in deliberation or activism towards the changing of laws, but about creating technologies, organizations, tools or infrastructures that the creators both intend and believe will result in freedom. The Freedom Box, for instance is a relatively recent project to create an alternative to “cloud computing”–it is inspired by Eben Moglen (early co-director of the Free Software Foundation) and his 2010 talk on “Freedom in the Cloud” at the, wait for it, Software Freedom Law Center. The goals of the project are more likely to be concerned less with freedom and more with privacy, anonymity, security and individual control–but it is nonetheless called the Freedom Box, not the Privacy Box or the Individual Control Box, which admittedly ring kind of hollow as names.
Now, at some level the people involved in these projects are engaged in exactly the kind of ethical cultivation that Foucault and Faubion articulate (See part 4)–but with freedom as the telos of that practice as well as its ground. Free Software advocates are famously devoted to a kind of acetic practice of purifying their own software environment; it has its mystics (Donald Knuth), it’s mendicants (Richard Stallman) and its dojo (The command line of the GNU/Linux Operating system). They possess the freedom necessary to engage in these practices by virtue of being either independently wealthy, academics, or well-paid during the day. But as I say, freedom is also the telos of this practice as well as its ground, and that has particular implications which are diagnostic not just of free software, but of contemporary scientific and engineering practice generally.
As an aside, these ethical subjects can be distinguished from other geeks in precisely this respect: it is possible to become a “geeky” ethical subject whose telos is not freedom, but some other goal: entertainment, economic efficiency, mastery of technology, “community” etc. And it is also possible to NOT have the freedom to become an ethical subject in this sense. And perhaps it goes without saying, but it is also possible to have freedom as a telos without at all being concerned with technology, software, science etc.
With freedom as a telos, the problem becomes not just how to behave towards oneself and others, but enabling others to have the freedom these ethical subjects seek to cultivate in themselves. At the very heart of Free Software, for instance, is the suspicion that software tools are necessary to life–for expression, creation, communication and at some level, for ethical cultivation–and that it therefore matters how they are constructed because it will affect the ability of other people to achieve freedom (or to achieve an ethics based on the freedom these tools enable in them). I think this sounds absurd to many people because it gives software too much credit–it makes it out to be the essence of life rather than a simple adjunct. But it does not sound at all absurd to really serious makes of software or devices.
Two things follow from the effort to enable other people’s freedom through the creation of software: 1) this perhaps takes the activity out of the domain of ethical cultivation and into the domain of politics (in the sense Arendt gives it), the domain of work and making, with the implication that it becomes an eminently public activity rather than a private or subjective one; and 2) it invokes exactly that concern which first Mill and then Isaiah Berlin identified: any version of freedom that forces other people to adopt a particular practice–even in the name of freedom–is not worthy of the name. Freedom is freedom from (negative freedom), not a substantive form of life imposed on others in order to make them free (positive freedom). Many who despise the most “ideological” Free Software advocates (or Free Culture, or “Freedom to Marry” people) do so on exactly the latter count: you can’t force me to be free.
But, people who create Free Software or Free Culture are not doing it sui generis; they are not attempting to impose a form of freedom they have invented, or somehow, in some ideal sense, believe exists and can only be accessed through their creations. Rather they are responding to a context in which they perceive the status quo to be one of domination.
Return for a moment to the “ideological” slogans of freedom. The de facto mode of marketing almost all new technologies is to emphasize how they will liberate us, free us from drudgery, create new possibilities for action we had never imagined, etc. (iPad 3 will make you free! Internet Freedom will topple regimes!). It is a very common intuition that what they actually do is “enslave” us, and in more than one way. First by subjecting us to a form of life, a mode of interacting with devices and other people that we had no role in cultivating and second, they dominate us in the very freedom-specific sense of creating a form of arbitrary power to which we must submit if we wish to use them. The former of these is the more ambivalent: sometimes we do want other people to invent new forms of life and to offer us the chance to adopt them. Sometimes, these technologies do enable forms of life that were impossible without them. Good/bad design, good/bad architecture, good/bad city planning all participate in a similar ambivalence. We love this city so we submit to the traffic problem; or we love this building because it enables certain forms of life so we submit to the fact that it is has bad ventilation, and so on. But it is the second of these implications to which much of the high-tech talk of “freedom” in free software, free culture, freedom in the cloud, responds today: non-domination.
Free Software is a practice of making that responds to the fact that most, if not all, new technologies are provided by corporations who possess a form of arbitrary power over their users. It is not a question of active interference by these corporations (except when it is)–active invasion of privacy or even passive surveillance (except when it is). Rather it is the fact that these entities’ power is arbitrary which angers and motivates these actors.
This is where being careful about the meaning of freedom is helpful. For those who would define freedom strictly as noninterference (strong “negative liberty” in Berlin’s sense) in the context of technological infrastructures, the paradox of the “contented slave” confronts them. It is eminently possible that we could live happily with Apple, Google, Facebook and a handful of other mega-corporations who promise not to do evil; it is possible to never experience either harm or interference from them–but we will still be subject to their arbitrary power, which is to say, they reserve the right to interfere when it serves their interests, not ours. For those who would define freedom as non-domination, then this is most certainly an unfree state of affairs.
There is an unease here, primarily for philosophers, I think, because they tend to associate power strictly with the State, and not with corporations, who are more likely to be seen as actors vis-a-vis the State. But they can be both (dominating citizens and dominated by the State; or in some cases, pace rupert murdoch, dominating both citizens and the State), and we really have no theory of freedom to adequately account for this complex relation.
So this is all a roundabout way of explaining that the kind of freedom that concerns those in the high-tech world, and especially in Free Software circles, is of the civic republican kind. It could, if people were better at using this language, answer the kinds of insipid concerns usually trotted out around privacy, security or surveillance, as in “Why should I worry if I’ve done nothing wrong” or the increasingly elaborate privacy controls of Facebook or “circles” of Google+ (by the way, is that circle as in “vicious” or circle as in “of hell”?). The notion of freedom as non-domination is about whether or not there is arbitrary power over your privacy, your security or your surveillance–not about your actions or your fine-grained ability to control who sees what about you. Though it does not account for anyone who desires to be dominated because it “makes my life easier”–that I have no explanation for yet.
If freedom is defined as non-domination then, a different more interesting problem confronts us: how do you make power non-arbitrary? From the perspective of political theory, non-arbitrary power is familiar, if not easy to achieve: it’s the rule of law, it’s democratic accountability, it’s the balance of power, it’s the public sphere as a check on power. But is this also how we make a corporate power non-arbitrary? What about a technology?
Free Software is a very particular (techno-legal) way of attempting to make power non-arbitrary. It is about designing and creating legally protected objects whose technical detail and structure is visible (open source) and whose legal existence is communal (Free Software license), and which commons is implicitly managed by organizations devoted to maintaining this form of freedom (formal enterprises whose goal is the collective maintenance of free software). That is not the only way to create non-arbitrary power, perhaps not even the best way. But that is it’s goal. It does this within the context of State power, but it achieves it through privately ordered groups of people who seek to bring freedom into existence this way.
My point, at least for the anthropologists, if not the philosophers, is that this is an example of how freedom is made doable in a concrete, empirically specifiable way. As far as I know, none of the Free Software advocates, nor any of the lawyers who observe it, talk about freedom in this philosophically precise way (with the possible exception of Lewis Hyde’s recent book). So it is not the case that the philosophical concept of freedom somehow determines or descends into the empirical realm to order the actions of people. Rather, there is an intuition, a context, perhaps a mode of ethical cultivation, which is attempting to achieve results that can be accurately understood with this set of philosophical distinctions. It is in this manner that freedom can be understood as a problem in the world, and anthropological inquiry as a form of empirical philosophy.
And that is all I got.