Screen Time and the Digital Humanist Atack on FreedomBy Blair Morris
September 23, 2019
On the bases of their public pronouncements, liberty is of fantastic value to the purveyors of digital technology. Social network companies have long embraced the right to complimentary expression: “ We exist in a society where people value and cherish complimentary expression, and the capability to say things …“ 1 However, it might well be that excessive online material is doing the opposite of promoting liberty, and considerations of some rather older philosophical ideas might assist to illustrate a prospective new digital issue. Liberty comes from being able to manage ourselves, not from being controlled, but information schedule, by itself, does not give us that ability.
Even when recognising that something is incorrect, and moving towards removal of abusive or improper material, which is to be welcomed, social networks business are hesitant about their actions, and look for sanction from outside bodies 2,3 Attempts to manage unsuitable or violent content are extremely targeted; material is not to be eliminated, but highlighted and hidden, perhaps to be sought-out by those interested 4 The justification for such content management is couched in terms of protecting flexibility: “ By updating the guidelines for the Web, we can preserve what’s finest about it– the liberty for people to reveal themselves and for entrepreneurs to construct new things …“ 2 The advantages and disadvantages of such relocations are disputed in regards to freedom of access to details 5,6, however this dispute, often opposing ‘flexibility of expression’ and ‘freedom from abuse’, may be obscuring other equally-critical aspects underpinning freedom.
All of the above represents a fundamental truth– social media companies, and their critics, appear to think that unrestricted, unconfined, access to the web maintains liberty. 1,6 Screen time is, therefore, equated with ‘liberty’, and ‘freedom’ is ‘the right to do what you want when you desire to do it’. To those who refute this position, they state that they are the opponents of liberty. This can be called a ‘digital humanist’ position. Being complimentary ways being able to generate screen time without question or barrier, and, more pertinently for the existing argument, without questioning why this is an advantage. Screen time is viewed as an inalienable right– accepting whatever screen time is available– something that even the founders of the Constitution of the U.S.A. would support 6
However, this view of flexibility could be thought about either naïve, self-serving, or disingenuous, with an overly-simplistic notion of what ‘freedom’ is, and what it requires. The cornerstones of freedom, it ends up, might be essentially weakened by excessive, unthinking, screen time– a scenario that may not only undermine our liberty but also our capability to be totally free. It is of interest to contrast this digital humanist view of liberty– in reality, a really humanistic one 7— with two extremely various views: one from Skinner ( Beyond Liberty and Self-respect) 8, and one from Popper ( The Open Society and Its Enemies) 9 On the face of it, these are views that are at odds with one another, with the latter clearly slamming the previous for dismissing liberty– for being an enemy of an open society. However, both of these positions share a typical thread– in order to be meaningful, ‘flexibility’ necessitates the capabilities ‘to know’, ‘to question’, and ‘to act’.
For a Skinnerian, if freedom is to have significance, it should include having a knowledge of the environmental variables that manage one’s habits, and an ability to put in ‘counter-control’ over those variables. As most of the variables that manage us, in this way, are ‘aversive’ (” Thou shalt not …”), Skinner would rather remove them, upgrade Society, and prevent the issue in the very first location– but that is for a paradise 8, or a dystopia 9, depending on your viewpoint. Popper argued that flexibility consisted in having no external control over what is thought, or proposed, and advocated the ability to question and test, scientifically, whatever we desire to propose. Hence, both of these views, although often counter-posed, include the ‘reasonable’ questioning of our world. For these views, ‘flexibility’ is not: ‘doing what I want, when I wish to do it’; but rather: ‘doing what I understand I must, when I know it is required’. A view that is extremely similar to that revealed by Spinoza: “ The greatest activity a person can obtain is discovering for understanding because to understand is to be complimentary.“10
This view provides an enormous obstacle to the digital humanist position. If liberty is an uncontrolled, self-determined, usage of screen time, this includes no rationality, always, but simply the capability to act, perhaps on a whim– and impulses can quickly become subverted or controlled by others. If you do not question what you are doing and why, how do you understand what you desire?; and, if you do not understand what you desire, how can you act reasonably and easily? You may still behave reflexively, of course– that is a standard Skinnerian notion– however such reflexive, or Pavlovian, responding is not ‘voluntary’ in a Skinnerian’s view.
At a mental level, disorganized screen time presents difficulties to being able to believe for oneself, and, therefore, challenges our ability to be complimentary– in this sense, it is the reverse of ‘liberty’. Think about this example: unlimited environments, without any positive limits, produce habits problems11, which will hinder capabilities for knowing, believed, and, thus, for flexibility. In fact, too much screen time will produce either excessive, or insufficient, direct exposure to info. Without structure, there will be an overload of info. In order to cope with this overload, we might over-select, and concentrate on less and less of it; we simply do not expose ourselves to the full possibilities however remain within our comfort zone12
In the limiting case, too much offered details results in a sense of powerlessness, and to quiting– witness the problems recently talked about by the UK cops in terms of their abilities to solve criminal activities: “ There is so much information that needs to be taken a look at … and you’ve been familiar with your data inside out and back to front …“13 To cope, we might stick with what recognizes– what we like– the echo chamber result– and this reduces our liberty. The environment acts to constrain our flexibility when we permit the environment to run riot. Unlimited, unconfined, screen time might produce less, not more, understanding. Less, not more, ability to concern. Less, not more, freedom. With this overload of information, our mental constraints mean that we become more vulnerable to affect, and less able to test or counter-control.
Promoting screen time is not going to promote flexibility unless we understand why we are utilizing the screen. Promoting unconfined screen time will allow the simpler pushing of views, and products, without reasonable questioning– it is a harmful threat to our liberty. Flexibility is safeguarded by acknowledging our mental limitations and individual obligations, knowing what needs to be done, and protecting the personal resources that will enable us to do this.
The sting in the tail to all of this, obviously, is to question how educational limitation works with liberty. The response to that question is that the restrictions on our looking for, and being exposed to, information need to come from our own reasoned habits– we need to know why we are utilizing the screen, and not rely on others to address this for us. Digital details is a tool, like any other, that we need to find out to use appropriately; after all, we would not arbitrarily use a power drill to do every task!
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