How Can We Define Freedom in a World that Is so Reliant on Technology?

Once upon a time, the Internet made us feel liberated. In 2023, we’ll have to deal with the moral quandaries it spawned.

The anticipation of the public with regards to the emergence of widespread internet access was truly palpable. This technology presented the world with an unprecedented level of communication and connectivity, and many hoped that it could lead to a heightened sense of autonomy. The potential of the internet was seen as a particularly bright spark of promise.

A decade ago, it was believed that the internet would make access to information more equal for everyone. Reflecting on the past, we can’t help but feel a slight sense of shame for how naïve we were in the early days of the internet. Fast forward to 2023 and the internet has become a battleground, with powerful groups fighting for or against net neutrality, the proliferation of misinformation, online harassment, and major data privacy issues. This demonstrates how far we have come since the early days of the internet, when our main goal was to foster global cooperation and enable two-way communication.

It is often argued that issues such as cyberbullying are a by-product of freedom of expression, and as such should be respected, regardless of any personal opinion. However, in a world where technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives, it is essential that we take the ethical implications of this phenomenon seriously. Whilst we must defend the right to free expression, it is important to recognize the potential damage that can be caused by malicious online behavior.

It is essential that we commence a dialogue regarding the impact that technology has had on our lives. Freedom is an integral part of contemporary culture, which makes this discussion particularly pertinent.

Where Does One Find Freedom, Anyway?

It can be safely assumed that if this question were posed without the assistance of a search engine, the majority of people would respond that freedom implies the complete lack of any restrictions from either society or government that could inhibit one’s self-expression. Despite this being a commonly held belief, in reality, such unrestricted freedom does not and cannot exist.

It may be tempting to imagine a world where we can do whatever we want with no consequences, but this idea overlooks the complexities of our reality. As we live in a society with other people who deserve the same rights as we do, we inevitably come into contact with them. Without a set of rules and regulations to govern our behaviour, it would be possible for individuals to commit acts of robbery, verbal abuse and other violations of another person’s rights without any repercussions. If this was the case, it is likely that the resulting chaos would be rapid and widespread.

Freedom, like many other abstract ideas, is difficult and counterintuitive.

In order to ensure that freedom is a benefit to everyone, it is essential to have a set of rules and regulations to abide by. Throughout history, many factions have joined forces in their pursuit of independence. Although there is no universal agreement on the definition of freedom, there is a chance to discuss the subject in a polite and respectful manner, subject to certain conditions.

As a result, it is important to recognise the necessity of certain limitations in order to ensure the viability of freedom. We recognise the presence of criminal laws, and the corresponding sanctions they bring. By agreeing not to commit acts of theft, for example, we are sacrificing a certain degree of personal autonomy, in order to safeguard a different kind of autonomy that we perceive as being essential for the achievement of a higher purpose.

Now that we have established a better understanding of what freedom means, we can now look into the ways in which technology affects and alters this concept.

Weighed Down by the Edge of a Cliff

Since it originally aired in 2023, the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror has managed to retain a large and devoted fan base, particularly amongst the younger generations. What has caused this? The show provided an insight into the more sinister side of technology through the use of fictional narratives. Black Mirror followed the traditional conventions of science fiction by using advancements in technology as a platform to investigate moral and philosophical issues in our current society.

The series proved to be popular with its viewers due to its ability to make them consider the possibility that the events portrayed in the show could actually come to fruition in the future. A notable example of this is the episode entitled ‘Nosedive’, which saw the relationships between characters being subject to a rating system, where higher scores would result in greater social standing.

It is natural to feel some level of apprehension when considering the news surrounding the use of credit ratings in China; this apprehension may be especially intense if the news seems far-fetched. It is important, however, to refrain from writing off such inquiry as a result of a pessimistic attitude towards technological advancement. To do so would be a mistake, and would not serve us well in the long run. Ultimately, the question remains: is this the kind of world we wish to inhabit?

It is undeniable that we are currently experiencing a rapid rate of technological advancement. It appears that technology is being used to solve every problem and satisfy every need. However, it is reasonable to question if this is the right direction for us to be heading in.

The core of the issue lies in the data. We now have an unprecedented amount of information accessible to us. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has enabled us to analyze these huge databases for relevant information. If you read any article related to AI, you will likely find out that it is mainly used to help people make informed decisions.

One might question who is responsible for making such decisions and what implications they have on our daily routines. Furthermore, it is worrying to consider the possibility that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be manipulating us into following a predetermined path, by assigning a score to every individual in China based on an unknown algorithm.

Put an End to that Nightmare from 1984

George Orwell’s 1984 is widely acclaimed as one of the best science fiction books ever written, thanks to its plausibility as a dystopian future. If you are yet to experience the story, it portrays a ruling party in a super state that employs ubiquitous surveillance to suppress any thought or action that is not in line with official policy. The news is manipulated to continually revise history and control the perception of the population.

It is becoming increasingly common for people to be misled by false information, and it is not difficult to understand why one may feel as though our present day reality is akin to the world depicted in George Orwell’s seminal novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. If this feels overwhelming, it is worth taking some time to consider the situation.

It can be easy to think that you have autonomy when it comes to choosing what you consume online, however, as more data is collected from us (which, it is important to remember, we willingly gave away without giving it much consideration), services are able to provide a personalized experience that appears to have been designed just for us. While this may appear to be a positive thing on the surface, there is a downside to this personalization: it can limit your thinking by surrounding you with people who share your views.

The issue of internet filter bubbles, which operate constantly to present material that we are likely to agree with while suppressing any content that may be considered controversial or factually inaccurate, has been widely discussed since Eli Pariser’s influential Ted Talk in 2023. These algorithms have become increasingly sophisticated, providing us with only the material we are likely to agree with, thanks to the growing prevalence of data and artificial intelligence solutions.

It is undeniable that the use of personal data and the ability of certain organizations to direct the flow of information to the public has implications for our liberty. Without the assurance of complete freedom to access all the available options, it is difficult to argue that we can maintain a sense of genuine freedom. It is clear that this kind of pressure reduces our autonomy and limits our ability to make our own decisions. Therefore, if we are to ensure that everyone can enjoy a free internet, we must take steps to ensure that all options are presented to the public.

Despite not having a Big Brother constantly monitoring our actions as in George Orwell’s vision of the future, it is undeniable that our world is beginning to resemble the ideas he put forward. We now routinely carry gadgets which document our day-to-day activities, from what we read and watch to where we go and who we talk to. This data is accessible to both commercial companies and, according to Edward Snowden, even governments, meaning they can gain a greater insight into our lives than we can ourselves. This information is then used to make ‘educated judgements’ on our behalf.

There Is Still Time to Take Action

It is undeniable that the tone of this essay thus far has been somewhat sombre. However, we must strive to ensure that this is not the conclusion that is drawn. It is true that the challenges we face in regards to the ever-increasing power of technology are significant; however, it is essential that we are able to regulate the growth of these technologies in order to maintain control. With Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things becoming more prominent in the coming years, it is essential that we remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent these incredible tools from being abused.

Despite the fact that technology has the potential to be developed, we can still take action now to ensure that potential does not have to have a negative outcome. Many people have previously held the opinion that any technology should be investigated, however, this does not have to be the only option. We do not have to stand in the way of technology if it can help to solve some minor issues. It is essential that we engage in a meaningful discussion about these advancements, for our own benefit and for the future of humanity.

It is clear that technological progress has the potential to improve our lives, but it is important that we take the time to critically assess both the potential benefits and drawbacks of such progress. Whilst I am far from being a luddite, having spent much of the past decade in the digital sector, I am also aware that we often fall into the trap of not fore sighting the consequences of our actions and instead reacting in the moment to whatever is presented in front of us.

It is difficult to anticipate what the future holds due to the ever-growing number of emerging technologies. However, by closely analyzing the development of the internet since its public introduction, we can gain some insight into what may be to come. Primarily, the internet has taught us that the world (and its technology) seldom follows the expected path. There is no escaping the constant changes and modifications that life brings.

In considering the implications of a world where technology dominates, it is evident that we must not succumb to a predetermined fate dictated by technocrats, corporations or artificial intelligence. Instead, we must maintain our right to express our own opinions and act autonomously. Consequently, freedom in a technology-driven world can be seen as the power to exercise our own judgement and make our own independent decisions. This is undeniably an important and consequential matter.

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