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Freedom

by Michael Nielsen on July 18, 2004

Daniel Lemire, quoting Phil Agre, writes a nice post on academic freedom:

It seems you can either build an empire for the purpose of building an empire, because that’s your definition of success, or else, you can aim to remain “free”. That’s a very powerful idea:

You build networks around the issues you care about, you grow and change through the relationships that result, you articulate the themes that are emerging in the community’s work, and through community-building and leadership you get the resources to do the things that you most care about doing. It’s true that this method will never give you arbitrary power. But the desire for arbitrary power is not freedom – it is a particularly abject form of slavery. If you can let go of preconceived plans then you are free: you can choose whom to associate with, and as you build your network you multiply the further directions that you can choose to go. You also multiply the unexpected opportunities that open up, the places you can turn for assistance with your projects, the flows of useful information that keep you in contact with reality, the surveillance of the horizon that keeps you from getting cornered by unanticipated developments, and the public persona that ensures that people keep coming to you with offers that you can take or leave. That is what freedom is, and it is yours if you will do the work.

I give Agre a lot of credit from bringing in the concept of “freedom” in research. University professors will often talk about “academic freedom”. I think that freedom in research is a stronger form of freedom. You can have “academic freedom” but be a slave to the “publish-or-perish” paradigm for the power it brings you. Or else, you can “do the work”, that is, do your research as a network node, and leverage the strength of the network to make the research you want to do anyhow, much better, much stronger.

This, of course, is not the usual concept of academic freedom – the ability to speak truth to power, without losing your job. But it’s an important adjunct; if you need to give up your own freedom in an attempt to maintain power, then that is not freedom. It’s become corny, but I thought the old song had it about right – freedom can be just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

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