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The Costs of Freedom

May 31, 2010

Well, today was Memorial Day, and I made it a mission to take some time for reflection on the sacrifices made by people willing (to varying degrees, I suppose) to give their lives for this country, and what that amount of intention actually stands for.  These people actually gave themselves fully to something, in an existential sense, and those sacrifices were not the products of simply default, coerced choices (again, to varying degrees).  So often we can say that Americans live lives almost entirely devoid of a sense of purpose or intentionality; the fact that the phrase “we sleepwalk through our lives” sounds trite and played-out is all the more evidence of both the fact’s truth and power.  Actually expending one’s entire life, or at least the remainder thereof, for the sake of a single cause is almost absurd to think about in the context of one’s own (modern) life.

Well, there was at least one casualty that touched me personally today: my Facebook account.  Since the last post on the topic where I said I was going to quit, Zuckerberg recanted and apologized for the mission creep of Facebook, made the privacy controls simpler, and donated some of his own money to Diaspora (probably because he doesn’t view it as a threat).  But because the FCC can actually prosecute companies for doing things that are inconsistent with their stated privacy policies, I’ve taken all my information to non-sharing and deactivated my account, which should insulate that information until I find an efficient way to scrape as much of “my” data as I can and permanently delete the account.  Sure, there may be some short-term costs to my social life, but it looks like Diaspora is well on its way to becoming a serviceable substitute at some point soon (especially given the notoriety it is receiving, which is pretty essential for any network good to have the necessary critical mass for effectiveness), and I feel good about taking one step, even if it was more of a stumble than a step in the right direction.

So, in a small and somewhat historically pathetic display that I am trying to practice what I preach, I quit Facebook.  I am sure that far fewer people actually quit today than had signed up on one of the various movements encouraging quitting Facebook, and I am equally sure that many of the people who quit will recapitulate and rejoin.  That’s simply the human nature of quitting (or in this case, opting-out).  It’s tough to commit to a decision when the series of short-run benefits outweigh the dimly imperceptible long-term costs.  That’s essentially true of any issue where there are short-run costs and long-run benefits that are so often associated with a larger sense of purpose and a need to fully commit; after all, in the long run, we’re all dead.

And now for an interjected series of uncomfortable questions that we rarely ask of ourselves:

  • How often do we do anything truly bold or decisive?
  • How often do we act in line with our beliefs?
  • More to the point, how often do we act in accordance with beliefs that do not affect us in the immediate and tangible short run?
  • How often are those acts mere symbolism rather than action calculated to achieve some kind of worthwhile change?
  • Is there anything you can say you would actually die for?
  • And really mean it?
  • And not just in the sort of contrived hypothetical Hobson’s choice situation, but in real life, some cause that you could actually see yourself striding into harm’s way to protect or advance?
  • Which is all to say, do you have some cause other than yourself?

Though the interlocutory approach might be jarring, isn’t that precisely what is necessary to wake us from our dogmatic slumbers?  Don’t we need people to basically be slapping us upside the head and shaking us up from our comfortable positions?  Why don’t we realize that doing exactly what we’ve done the way we’ve always done it is boring and in the end meaningless?  Ok, I’ve gotten a bit afield of Facebook (which just shows how silly of a stance it really is to take), but the point about living with purpose still stands: we don’t really live for a cause or even for ourselves really because we don’t consider the extent of our real options.  We go through the motions, believing that the way things were handed to us from the previous generation is true and correct because it “worked for them.”  We don’t question enough assumptions, challenge enough authority, or strive to improve ourselves and our lives in the face of externally imposed difficultly and (perhaps more importantly) inertia.

That’s why on a day like Memorial Day, though much of the solemnity it deserves is entirely artificial lip-service, we might consider creating a new holiday I would dare to entitle, “Liberties Day.”  The concept would basically encourage setting aside time to contemplate the value of the liberties we have and can exercise even though we usually don’t.  It would be an institution that supports the individual, rather than the all-too-common other way around, and a necessary bulwark at that.  For that reason, the concept would probably be decried by the Nanny State, “that isn’t normal,” “isn’t that dangerous” class of folks, who basically try to pen up liberties into smaller and smaller corrals because freedom is unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous.

Of course, on the Korean War Memorial I visited today, I was given a bit of a reminder that these Hobbesian anti-libertarian folks could stand to take to heart: “Freedom is not free.”

UPDATE: It looks like at least 25,000 people have quit Facebook yesterday, and June 6 is Boycott Facebook Day, if nothing else.  People seem satisfied with the privacy adjustments mentioned above, and I would be too if I thought they were permanent or as transparent as they claim to be (which is why I locked myself into those terms by deactivating), or if those controls were actually subject to the control of the user without Facebook going back in and readjusting the terms of use whenever enough people have forgotten about this flap.  In either event, Facebook seems to have only half-heartedly implemented those changes because, at bottom, it has “gone rogue” with its insatiable impetus toward mission creep (after all, it has some investors to impress even though it has yet to make any real money whatsoever).  The fact that public antipathy toward Facebook tends to oscillate between a low rumble to a growing crescendo may be the most positive sign yet, and that’s why I’m still glad I did what I did, and plan to stay off Facebook unless and until some supervening force takes the power to control my information out of their hands and puts it somewhere else: like my hands.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 12:34 am

    Rick, this was a really great post. Thanks.

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  1. A Slap to the Facebook « The New Print

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