Phoney Freedom

Do smartphones rob us of our freedom, as Edgar Degas thought? Isaiah Berlin would argue otherwise

When telephones were still a rare possession, the French artist Jean-Louis Forain decided to install a telephone in his town house. Wanting to surprise his good friend Edgar Degas with it, he invited him around for dinner and made sure to leave the table and conspicuously take a call. When he returned to the dinner table, Degas drily remarked: “So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.” 

Today, he might have added: “And who else is listening?” 

Information is connected to communication technology just as the waffle does not exist independently of the waffle iron. And smartphones offer access to information about events in the public sphere. After all,           iPhone snaps taken at the Boston marathon helped investigators identify the suspects. Social protest movements across the world have captured the violence of oppressive regimes on smartphones. While smartphones and YouTube had not yet been invented at the time of 9/11, information on catastrophes and natural disasters can now instantly be uploaded to online emergency maps, a major development in crisis communication.  

However, Degas was less concerned with the transmission of information than with the ways that the telephone interferes with people’s behaviour in social situations. More than half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin proposed a distinction between two kinds of freedom: negative and positive liberty. While positive freedom is the freedom to act as you wish, negative liberty means to be free from obstacles and constraints. 

With his concept of negative liberty Berlin had bigger things in mind than the small device that is now accused of robbing us of our freedom — the smartphone. And yet critical voices echo his concept when they say that the smartphone has extinguished our work-free evenings, weekends and holidays. Since we are always connected and ever distracted, smartphones interfere with our lives, they say — and frown.

Their scepticism is as old as the printing press. Every media device has been met with disdain at the time of its introduction. Media scholars speak of media panics, when the telegraph was accused of blurring our perception of time and space, the radio was said to corrupt  youth, and the television blamed for turning us anti-social. Maybe a person who complains about the media is like a sailor who complains about the sea.

Mediation surrounds us: even without using a phone or computer, watching TV or reading a book, we walk past advertisements, we hear announcements and we echo all this information through the medium   of language whenever we open our mouths. The media interrupt our thoughts and interactions — if we let them. 

In the end, it is up to us how much negative freedom we grant the media. Berlin received telephone calls even while being interviewed, but he took them in his stride. His biographer Michael Ignatieff writes: “The phone is at his elbow and it rings often. When it does, the same sequence of gestures ensues. He mutters, ‘With pleasure, with pleasure, now let me see,’ cups the receiver between neck and shoulder, retrieves his diary from his waistcoat pocket, pushes his glasses above his eyebrows, places his pince-nez on the bridge of his nose, fingers the diary pages, ponders, then says, ‘Wednesday at 3pm’, scribbles, re-pockets his diary, puts down the phone, blinks and says, ‘Now where were we?'”

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