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 pronouncements, liberty is of terrific importance to the purveyors of digital technology. Social media business have actually long embraced the right to free expression: “ We exist in a society where people value and value totally free expression, and the capability to state things … 1 Nevertheless, it might well be that excessive online material is doing the reverse of promoting freedom, and factors to consider of some rather older philosophical ideas might assist to illustrate a prospective new digital issue. Freedom comes from being able to control ourselves, not from being controlled, however information availability, on its own, does not offer us that ability.

Even when identifying that something is incorrect, and moving towards removal of violent or improper material, which is to be invited, social media business are reluctant about their actions, and look for sanction from outdoors bodies 2,3 Efforts to manage inappropriate or violent content are extremely targeted; material is not to be gotten rid of, however highlighted and hidden, possibly to be sought-out by those interested 4 The justification for such material management is couched in regards to maintaining freedom: “ By upgrading the guidelines for the Web, we can maintain what’s best about it– the freedom for individuals to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build brand-new things … 2 The advantages and disadvantages of such relocations are discussed in regards to flexibility of access to information 5,6, however this debate, frequently opposing ‘flexibility of expression’ and ‘flexibility from abuse’, might be obscuring other equally-critical elements underpinning flexibility.

All of the above represents a basic reality– social media companies, and their critics, appear to believe that unlimited, unconfined, access to the web preserves liberty. 1,6 Screen time is, hence, related with ‘freedom’, and ‘flexibility’ is ‘the right to do what you desire when you wish to do it’. To those who refute this position, they state that they are the enemies of liberty. This can be called a ‘digital humanist’ position. Being free means having the ability to amass screen time without concern or obstacle, and, more pertinently for the existing argument, without questioning why this is a great thing. 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

Nevertheless, this view of freedom could be considered either naïve, self-serving, or disingenuous, with an overly-simplistic idea of what ‘flexibility’ is, and what it requires. The foundations of liberty, it turns out, may be fundamentally undermined by excessive, unthinking, screen time– a situation that may not only undermine our liberty but also our ability to be complimentary. It is of interest to contrast this digital humanist view of flexibility– in reality, an extremely humanistic one 7— with two really various views: one from Skinner ( Beyond Freedom and Dignity) 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 explicitly criticizing the former for dismissing flexibility– for being an enemy of an open society. Nevertheless, both of these positions share a typical thread– in order to be significant, ‘freedom’ necessitates the abilities ‘to know’, ‘to question’, and ‘to act’.

For a Skinnerian, if freedom is to have meaning, it needs to involve having an understanding of the ecological variables that control one’s behavior, and a capability to exert ‘counter-control’ over those variables. As most of the variables that manage us, in this method, are ‘aversive’ (” Thou shalt not …”), Skinner would rather remove them, redesign Society, and prevent the problem in the very first location– however that is for an utopia 8, or a dystopia 9, depending upon your perspective. Popper argued that freedom consisted in having no external control over what is thought, or proposed, and promoted the capability to concern and test, clinically, whatever we wish to propose. Therefore, both of these views, although often counter-posed, involve the ‘logical’ questioning of our world. For these views, ‘flexibility’ is not: ‘doing what I desire, when I want to do it’; but rather: ‘doing what I know I must, when I understand it is required’. A view that is highly comparable to that revealed by Spinoza: “ The highest activity a human can achieve is finding out for understanding since to understand is to be totally free.10

This view presents a huge obstacle to the digital humanist position. If liberty is an unchecked, self-determined, usage of screen time, this includes no rationality, always, however simply the ability to act, maybe on an impulse– and impulses can quickly end up being overturned or managed 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 know what you want, how can you act reasonably and freely? You may still behave reflexively, obviously– that is a basic Skinnerian notion– however such reflexive, or Pavlovian, reacting is not ‘voluntary’ in a Skinnerian’s view.

At a psychological level, disorganized screen time presents obstacles to being able to think for oneself, and, therefore, challenges our capability to be complimentary– in this sense, it is the reverse of ‘flexibility’. Think about this example: unlimited environments, with no positive limitations, produce habits problems11, which will inhibit abilities for learning, thought, and, hence, for liberty. In fact, too much screen time will produce either excessive, or insufficient, direct exposure to details. Without structure, there will be an overload of info. In order to cope with this overload, we might over-select, and focus on less and less of it; we simply do not expose ourselves to the full possibilities but stay within our comfort zone12

In the limiting case, excessive offered info results in a sense of powerlessness, and to offering up– witness the problems recently gone over by the UK police in regards to their abilities to fix crimes: “ There is a lot information that needs to be looked at … and you have actually learnt more about your data completely and back to front …13 To cope, we might stick to what recognizes– what we like– the echo chamber result– and this minimizes our flexibility. The environment acts to constrain our flexibility when we permit the environment to run riot. Unlimited, unfettered, screen time might produce less, not more, knowledge. Less, not more, capability to concern. Less, not more, liberty. With this overload of info, our psychological constraints indicate that we end up being more prone 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 utilizing the screen. Promoting unfettered screen time will enable the much easier pushing of views, and items, without reasonable questioning– it is an unsafe hazard to our flexibility. Freedom is safeguarded by recognizing our mental limits and personal obligations, knowing what requires to be done, and securing 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 informative restriction is suitable with flexibility. The answer to that question is that the limitations on our seeking, and being exposed to, details need to come from our own reasoned habits– we need to understand why we are utilizing the screen, and not count on others to address this for us. Digital information is a tool, like any other, that we have to learn to utilize properly; after all, we would not arbitrarily utilize a power drill to do every task!


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13 BBC (266.19). Criminal activity solving rates ‘woefully low’, Met Authorities Commissioner states.

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