Our Diminishing Freedom in the Digital Age

This week’s New York Times highlighted a 2018 film, The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary by young Muslim filmmaker Assia Boundaoui, which told the story of how the residents of the Muslim community in the suburban Chicago community of Bridgeview came to believe that they were the victims of an unjustified surveillance by the FBI over a number of years; the film effectively telling the story of how such a surveillance can become an end in itself simply because the fear of being watched can lead to a fear of speaking out, regardless of whether anyone is actually watching. As Ms. Boundaoui says in the film in voice-over, “That grey area between paranoia and the truth is a dangerous place.”

In similar fashion, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre’s lifelong friend the lover, wrote of how modern women face a certain similar existential bind in having to develop their own viewpoint toward their life and the world at the same time that they have become the viewpoint of others, in particular men, where they become both observer and observed, something which necessarily has a profound effect on their personal freedom.

Now, with the coming of our present digital age, it seems that we are all up against the same existential crisis as the Muslim community of Bridgeview and Simone de Beauvoir faced, one in which we are made to feel that we are being perpetually watched even as we attempt to make sense of our world. That is, any statement we make online, however seemingly innocuous it might seem, becomes immediate fodder for someone who might choose to misinterpret it. In similar fashion, the digital memories inside powerful search engines inside our phones and computers often know where we’ll navigating next in cyberspace even before we do.

In fact, the algorithms of Google and other search engines are now not only able to feed us information that they have already gathered about us, but also direct us to where we should travel next on the Web even before we have decided to do so ourselves by simply catching our eye with what they already know we may want to see next based on where we have already traveled. Anyone who has ever searched Amazon or begun receiving spam e-mails from out of the blue based on their personal search history knows this eventuality all too well.

Except the real difference between what Assia Boundaoui and Simone de Beauvoir endured and our present plight in the digital age is that their freedom was being controlled and impeded externally, so to speak, while for those of us who are potential victims in cyberspace, the impediment to our freedom is entirely internal. That is whereas before, the plight of those two women is part of their long-term memories and personal experience, albeit the result of difficult dynamics in their lives, now the very neural pathways inside out brains, simply because we are in effect outsourcing our memories and the pattern of our thoughts to large search engines, are being controlled and directed from the outside.

Consequently, our loss of personal freedom has now become a dynamic that resides inside the same patterns of thought and memory that we might use to combat such a development in the way Ms. Boundaoui and Ms. Beauvoir combatted their particular predicaments that were keeping them less free. That is, our mental freedom, in a very real sense, faces a much more serious challenge to its continued development simply because the very things we have always used to envision and maintain such a freedom, our patterns of thought and memory, are being conditioned in a manner in which they are becoming increasingly less clear to us in such a pursuit.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

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