Screen time and the digital humanist attack on freedom

Screen time and the digital humanist attack on freedom

By Blair Morris

July 22, 2019

On the bases of their public declarations, liberty is of terrific value to the purveyors of digital technology. Social media business have long espoused the right to totally free expression: “ We exist in a society where individuals value and value totally free expression, and the ability to say things … 1 However, it may well be that excessive online product is doing the reverse of promoting flexibility, and considerations of some rather older philosophical ideas might assist to highlight a possible new digital issue. Freedom comes from being able to control ourselves, not from being managed, but info schedule, by itself, does not provide us that ability.

Even when recognising that something is wrong, and moving towards elimination of violent or unsuitable material, which is to be invited, social media companies are reluctant about their actions, and seek sanction from outdoors bodies 2,3 Attempts to control inappropriate or violent content are extremely targeted; product is not to be eliminated, but highlighted and concealed, perhaps to be sought-out by those interested 4 The justification for such material management is couched in regards to preserving freedom: “ By updating the guidelines for the Internet, we can maintain what’s best about it– the flexibility for individuals to reveal themselves and for business owners to construct new things … 2 The benefits and drawbacks of such moves are disputed in regards to freedom of access to info 5,6, however this debate, often opposing ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘liberty from abuse’, might be obscuring other equally-critical elements underpinning flexibility.

All of the above represents a fundamental fact– social media companies, and their critics, appear to believe that unlimited, unfettered, access to the internet protects liberty. 1,6 Screen time is, hence, equated with ‘flexibility’, and ‘freedom’ is ‘the right to do what you desire when you want to do it’. To those who argue against this position, they state that they are the enemies of flexibility. This can be termed a ‘digital humanist’ position. Being free means having the ability to collect screen time without concern or hindrance, and, more pertinently for the current argument, without questioning why this is an excellent thing. Screen time is perceived as an inalienable right– accepting whatever screen time is offered– something that even the creators of the Constitution of the U.S.A. would support 6

However, this view of liberty could be considered either naïve, self-serving, or disingenuous, with an overly-simplistic notion of what ‘freedom’ is, and what it involves. The foundations of freedom, it ends up, might be essentially undermined by extreme, unthinking, screen time– a scenario that might not just weaken our flexibility however also our ability to be complimentary. It is of interest to contrast this digital humanist view of liberty– in truth, a really humanistic one 7— with 2 extremely various views: one from Skinner ( Beyond Liberty and Dignity) 8, and one from Popper ( The Open Society and Its Opponents) 9 On the face of it, these are views that are at odds with one another, with the latter explicitly slamming the former for dismissing liberty– for being an opponent of an open society. Nevertheless, both of these positions share a typical thread– in order to be meaningful, ‘freedom’ demands the abilities ‘to know’, ‘to question’, and ‘to act’.

For a Skinnerian, if liberty is to have significance, it needs to include having a knowledge of the environmental variables that control one’s habits, and an ability to put in ‘counter-control’ over those variables. As most of the variables that control us, in this method, are ‘aversive’ (” Thou shalt not …”), Skinner would rather eliminate them, redesign Society, and prevent the issue in the first location– but that is for an utopia 8, or a dystopia 9, depending upon your perspective. Popper argued that flexibility consisted in having no external control over what is believed, or proposed, and promoted the ability to question and test, scientifically, whatever we desire to propose. Hence, both of these views, although frequently counter-posed, include the ‘logical’ questioning of our world. For these views, ‘liberty’ is not: ‘doing what I desire, when I desire to do it’; however rather: ‘doing what I understand I must, when I know it is required’. A view that is highly similar to that revealed by Spinoza: “ The greatest activity a person can attain is discovering for understanding because to comprehend is to be complimentary.10

This view provides a huge challenge to the digital humanist position. If freedom is an unrestrained, self-determined, usage of screen time, this includes no rationality, necessarily, but simply the capability to act, possibly on an impulse– and impulses can easily end up being overturned 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 might still act reflexively, naturally– that is a fundamental Skinnerian notion– but such reflexive, or Pavlovian, reacting is not ‘voluntary’ in a Skinnerian’s view.

At a psychological level, disorganized screen time presents difficulties to being able to think for oneself, and, for that reason, challenges our capability to be complimentary– in this sense, it is the opposite of ‘freedom’. Consider this example: unlimited environments, with no positive limitations, produce habits issues11, which will prevent abilities for knowing, thought, and, thus, for liberty. In reality, excessive screen time will produce either excessive, or too little, direct exposure to details. Without structure, there will be an overload of information. In order to deal with this overload, we may over-select, and focus on less and less of it; we just do not expose ourselves to the complete possibilities however stay within our comfort zone12

In the restricting case, excessive offered info results in a sense of powerlessness, and to providing up– witness the problems just recently talked about by the UK police in regards to their abilities to resolve criminal offenses: “ There is a lot information that has to be taken a look at … and you’ve got to understand your data completely and back to front …13 To cope, we might stick with what recognizes– what we like– the echo chamber result– and this lowers our flexibility. The environment acts to constrain our flexibility when we enable the environment to run riot. Unrestricted, unconfined, screen time might produce less, not more, knowledge. Less, not more, ability to question. Less, not more, freedom. With this overload of info, our mental constraints imply that we become more susceptible to influence, and less able to test or counter-control.

Promoting screen time is not going to promote liberty unless we understand why we are using the screen. Promoting unfettered screen time will permit the much easier pushing of views, and items, without rational questioning– it is a harmful danger to our liberty. Liberty is safeguarded by recognizing our mental limitations and individual duties, understanding what needs to be done, and safeguarding the individual resources that will enable us to do this.

The sting in the tail to all of this, of course, is to question how informational limitation works with liberty. The response to that concern is that the limitations on our seeking, and being exposed to, info need to originate from our own reasoned behavior– we have to understand why we are utilizing the screen, and not depend on others to answer this for us. Digital details is a tool, like any other, that we need to learn to utilize properly; after all, we would not randomly use a power drill to do every job!


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11 Osborne, L.A., & Reed, P. (2009). The relationship between parenting stress and behavior problems of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Extraordinary Kids, 76( 1 ), 54-73

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13 BBC (266.19). Criminal activity resolving rates ‘woefully low’, Met Police Commissioner says.

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