Dave Rogers follows up with, among other words:

Some people spend much of their lives building and moving into bigger and supposedly better boxes. I like being comfortable. Though I must say, I've learned most of the important things in my life by being very uncomfortable.

I think there are two types of comfort that have little to do with each other. Those of us who have the choice of whether or not to be comfortable in our current states tend to think of comfort as a choice people make. In an obese nation, for example, we can talk about whether or not we really need to lose or gain weight, or whether we should just learn to accept whatever weight we currently have.

But I think that’s the exception to common life experience. Most people really don’t have that choice. They really have a "box" constraining them. They either gain weight by finding the "bigger box," or they die. Or maybe the "box" is a lack of health care, or a civil war, or maybe they’re caught up in human trafficking, and it’s literally a box. There’s no shortage of real problems people can’t choose whether or not to face.

In America, and much of the developed world, we have no shortage of imaginary problems we can choose whether or not to face. We can decide when our boat is big enough because we aren’t drowning. But even for many Americans, that’s not the case, and it would be insulting to tell someone drowning that they’re just imagining their problems. I think most constraints on freedom are real and important, and that’s what I mean when I say "seriously, there is a box."

Probably at some point, there’s an inverse connection between the imagined constraints and the real ones, when building a large boat requires taking that last scrap of wood from the drowning victims. But I don’t think this is the norm, and in most cases, the two types of constraints, chosen and forced, have little in common. It seems to me that I’m focusing on the latter and Dave is focusing on the former and we’re not so much disagreeing about this being an elephant as we are focusing on different parts of it.

 

Dave Rogers said some things about what I said about what he said. I agree with his early sentiments. "Freedom" is a complicated concept, and I suspect it's not really worth unraveling, so let’s just work on whatever shared meaning we can squeeze out of that word.

We can know wrong things, and that’s just as — if not more — constraining as not knowing anything. But the only way to find out something we know is wrong is to come to know something right. Learning something wrong is the risk we take when learning. But in my experience, it’s not a very big risk.

Dave asks "how much knowledge you want to have before you think you have enough freedom. At what point does the desire for knowledge itself act as constraint?" I don't know what "enough freedom" would be in the general sense. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t seem to want more freedom.

But in specific contexts, I think "enough freedom" is an important question we all need to answer for ourselves. Some people find alcohol consumption increases their overall freedom, so they seek out knowledge to help increase their freedom to consume alcohol. Personally, I find alcohol consumption reduces my overall freedom, so I seek out other knowledge.

I think knowledge — like everything else, I suppose — acts as a constraint as soon as it becomes its own end. Let’s take an analogy: I’m trapped in a box. I want to get out of the box. You might respond with your transcendal wisdom that "there is no box," but seriously, there is. It’s made of wood, and I’m in it and I’m hungry. Not like "I could really go for a bowl of ice cream" hungry, but real "this hurts" hungry.

So my first step in getting out of the box (gaining freedom) is to learn about the box. I see that the box is nailed shut. This is useful knowledge. I see that there’s a crowbar inside the box. Also useful knowledge. I think to myself "knowledge is so great!" I look around the box for all the knowledge I can find. I inspect every grain in the wood, every curve in the crow bar, every nail in this box holding me in. I love knowledge! And I starve to death in the box, excited at my newfound knowledge of death.

I think that point where I notice the crowbar and start to value knowledge itself rather than the specific knowledge that enables me to increase freedom (using the crowbar to open the box) is where knowledge becomes constraining. Dave writes "Maybe we're all about as free as we're ever going to be." Maybe, but I doubt it, and I hope not. Such a flat world just doesn’t sound like much fun.

 

Dave Rogers is reading a book called Heresies Against Progress and Other Illusions and writes The externally directed "knowing," the discovery and gathering of information, while empowering in other ways, does not make us more free. With that I think I agree. I agree, but I think this ignores an important point: knowledge does not make us free, but it enables freedom. Conversely, ignorance constrains us.

The problem is that knowledge has, for many of us, become the end rather than the means. When someone criticizes Wikipedia, too often the response is not an explanation of the benefits Wikipedia brings to real people, but instead a faith-based proposition that Wikipedia is inherently good by virtue of it being a large and growing collection of knowledge.

When knowledge is treated as a self-justifying goal, it can easily take precedence over more important things. When Wikipedia slanders someone, that’s hurting real people. That’s a problem that will only be recognized by those of us who maintain that people are more important than knowledge. Those who worship the all-knowing hive-mind as an eternal source of good are unable to see the problem of people getting hurt.

But I think disregarding the enabling aspect of knowledge is sort of like halting our consumption of water after someone drowns. Water doesn’t make us healthy, but it’s awfully hard to be healthy without water. On MakeDataMakeSense, I have a little diagram under the logo on every page, which looks like this:

DATA > INFORMATION > KNOWLEDGE > WISDOM

Knowledge and wisdom are greyed out because they’re outside the scope of the site. I’d probably go further and say they’re outside the scope of any programming project, because knowledge and wisdom are best handled by people, not machines. But they’re still there because they’re important.

I think "wisdom" to me is pretty much the same as Dave’s "interior knowledge." And I don’t think that can exist without "external knowledge." I think we get to know ourselves within our context. Some of us understand pain when we hit our finger with a hammer. Some of us understand pain when we lose a loved one. But we need to first understand a hammer, or understand death. No one understands pain without first understanding something else, some external knowledge that could most likely be found on Wikipedia.

 

Gabe writes:

Before we got to the final cordon of police surrounding us, we passed two young men in business suits. One man gave me his business card that read, "50% OFF: Mobile Protest Area (for 30 minutes, $5 for additional 30 minutes): EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH AT 1/2 THE COST: FREE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT PICKET SIGN RENTAL WITH THIS COUPON (or $3 for 30 minutes) -- Kids in FREE with Paying Adult -- [then in very small font] -- brought to you by Clear Channel.??" Then the other one produced a black box and pointed it at my head and took a Polaroid of my face and held it out to me shouting: "Commemorate your time here at this anti-establishment protest! Yours for only 8 dollars!"

I missed those guys. Probably around the same time I was reading a sign near the Libertarian demonstrator table. The sign had a phone number: "1-800-ELECTUS." I commented on how desperate that phone number seemed - no issues at all, just "elect us." Then we crossed the street to get a gander at the counter-demonstrators. When I saw the Libertarian counter-demonstrators, I felt sorry for the Libertarian Party, protesting against itself.

My favorite sign of the day was an outline of America with the words "Free Speech Zone" printed over it. As I was being pushed by a police horse into a crowd of people who weren't moving, I asked the officer standing next to me where exactly I was to go. He said "on the curb." I said "but the curb is full of people." He said "I know." I guess that's the bright side of the gradual restriction of free speech in America: the curb is always full of people, and the police know.