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Freedom and Constraints

(cross-posted at TextoSolvo)

One of the problems in the Western world right now, in my estimation, is that we see “freedom” as an artificially good thing in an abstract & idealized sense. humans, whatever else we are, are animals, and we have developed biological and cultural systems to deal with the universe. and nothing is “free” in the universe. you must obey the laws of physics: when you get punched in the nose it hurts, and when you eat rocks, they taste bad and make you sick, and break your teeth. that they are painful helps you try to avoid getting punched in the nose, and discourages you from eating rocks instead of apples, both of which are helpful if you wish to survive in the world. that is what the universe is “like,” yet in the western world we have abstracted out “freedom” as some kind of thing which is good in itself. I too think freedom is good, but not “in itself.” i think it is good because increased freedom for a larger number of people results in a better ability to solve important problems (firstly, how do we feed and clothe ourselves, and protect our families, and then other more complex, but less important issues).

so librivox is a kind of demonstration that says: here are the rules. everything *else* is free, but the rules are not negotiable. and they are not negotiabale BECAUSE librivox has an objective that defines everything we do: “to make all public domain books available in audio for free.” the rules have been/are set in order to help us achieve that objective. everything is weighed against the objective, not against some abastract “freedom.”

that is very powerful. i believe one of the driving evolutionary forces that has made humans successful is our desire to build and pleasure at building things.

but building things takes discipline and dedication. it is always easier to sit on your ass and do nothing. and you are – in our very rich, and very easy world, “free” to sit on your ass and do nothing, but I don’t believe you will ever be happy if you take that approach. In order to be a happy human, I believe, you must build things.

and *that*, to me, is what freedom means: the freedom to build the things you want to build. not freedom to do whatever you want, wherever you want, because “freedom” per se is sacred, but the freedom to pursue objectives you believe in.

we have lost our sense of discipline, and I think that makes people very unhappy. I don’t mean that in any draconican sense, I just mean that in western world, we are told (by psychologists, parents, media, etc) that we can do whatever we want, that we are the centre of the universe, that our freedom is the most important thing and we have a *right* to it, that just believing in ourselves is enough to succeed. all of which is, frankly, bullshit.

and that kind of thinking makes, I think, for unhappy people, and a disfunctional society, because we are NOT the centre of the universe able to influence it with our belief in how important we are; we are just a little part of it, subject to its laws. among which is, not much ever gets done without work.

A few people have gotten involved with LibriVox, been impressed by the anarchist underpinnings, and argued that we needed to allow full freedom (ie to rant, to be disruptive etc). but librivox as a system works in part because of the laws of our little universe, some of which we understand, some of which are mysterious. I’ve been careful to try to defend and protect those mysterious things – even if I do not totally understand them (hence my defense of the “disclaimer” – I don’t want to mess with something that’s worked unless it is very clear that messing will make LV work better).

I read recently somewhere that real freedom only comes from the pleasure of succeeding within constraints. Which seems to me to be about right.


  1. Kristin Kristin 2007-04-03

    Well, I see freedom a bit differently than you do. We all have freedom (completely and utterly) even when we’re in the most oppressive situations. The things that restrict us are the consequences of our actions. I think if more people understood that they can do what they want, but they will deal with the consequences whether they accept them or not, discipline would follow. I also think that more people would take responsibility for their actions, rather than blaming them on outside forces.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-04-03

    i don’t know kristin … what do you mean, exactly, by: “we all have freedom (completely and utterly)”? what freedom to do … anything?

    and sure we are constrained by the consequences of our actions, but we are also constrained by the consequences of others’ actions, and the consequences of the laws of physics, and other laws.

    also, I believe it is a myth that “we can do what we want.” could you be a NBA MVP (if you wanted such a thinhg)? Could I be a professional opera singer? The answer is no.

    We can do some of the things we want, as long as we want reasonable things, and the universe cooperates to some extent. But we most certainly can’t always do what we want.

  3. alan alan 2007-04-04

    this longish statement is a good beginning, impressive even, but i’d like to see how discipline (self-discipline and the dicipline imposed via feedback) fits in. what you’re saying implies that we live in a disciplined world (read: a world of greater or lesser laws.) what happens with those who don’t give a hoot? what happened with those who give what we consider to be a negative hoot? how are we related (or relating) to that?

    also, what happened to your book reviews for the 52 books you’re reading this year. i wanted to comment on your (overly brief/cursory) review of Kafka on the Shore. I was very disappointed in both the book and perhaps your review as well… ah, well, feedback is a ficle friend.

  4. Hugh Hugh 2007-04-04

    re: discipline:
    those who give a negative hoot either get with the program, or get the boot. with librivox, we have the luxury of making participation exclusive … ie, exclusive to those who agree to the objective: “to make all public domain books available for free, on the internet.” if you do not agree with the objective, then there is no reason for you to be there; if you actively hinder the objective, you will be invited to leave; and if you agree with the objective, but not the methods, we again have the luxury of being able to prove our case by our concrete achievement. and this is my argument with people who disagree with the methods of librivox: it is working, and we are convinced it is working *because* of how we do things. So, if you don’t like how we do things, you are welcome to argue your case (i think we are pretty open about that, tho maybe others have other opinions) …and if we really can’t come to an agreement, we’ll go with the devil we know (ie, the one that has worked so far), and you are welcome to prove us wrong and do better elsewhere. the internet is a big place, and the more public domain audiolit projects, the better.

    re: reviews:
    you can see progress on the 52 books: here.

    Here is a list of reviews:

    and here is the kafka review:

  5. heri heri 2007-04-07

    great post. best i’ve read in a while.

    Reminds me that a long time ago, i once thought that men built civilizations and invented machines because they secretly wished that it would make women stop whining


    on a more serious note, i think freedom has many forms and faces. I do not think freedom equals to building the things you want to build.

    building the things you want to build brings of course a sense of satisfaction and fullfillment, and in a certain way, freedom.

    I do not know however how to define freedom, which is in the same class as beauty or justice.

    although I agree with you in the end. building a website and a service is for me much alike architecture. everybody is invited to participate, but in the end, it must stay ‘coherent’ and the architect must choose a final design, otherwise we would have a crazy multicolor uncoherent mess – a house that wants to please everybody but pleases nobody in the end.

    just my 0.02

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