Free, as in Unfettered

I do many presentations these days centered around the idea of openness and the value of teaching ourselves and our students the ways and means of digital citizenship, which for me inevitably includes publication to the open Web (there’s that “open” thing again) and subscribing (RSS or otherwise) to material published to the open Web. That’s why it’s the Read/Write Web.

Clearly my ideas have been influenced–I’d say “shaped” is more like it–by the resonance frequencies of Bush-Licklider-Engelbart-Nelson-Kay et al. As several folks have pointed out in the Baylor seminar, that resonance frequency is also present in McLuhan and in today’s reading, Bill Viola’s “Will There Be Condominiums In Data Space”? I confess: I chose the readings and ordered them as I did to find and amplify that resonance frequency. For me, it’s the music of the spheres, not just because *I* like it, though I do, but because it sets in motion complex individual resonances that lead, I firmly believe, to the imaginative leaps and awakenings that we need to make sense and use of our digital world (and perhaps our world, period–though they’re rapidly becoming synonymous).

Prepping for today’s New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar meeting, I re-read Viola. I re-read him yesterday too as I prepped for the First Year Seminar meeting. Each time I marveled even more at the extraordinary range and depth and quality of his thought.. His commitment to convergence-divergence, or is it divergence-convergence, is breathtaking, even if he sometimes doesn’t quite get the science entirely right (Hillary is characteristically on point in her critique but also characteristically generous in her final appraisal). He really is someone with McLuhan’s heart who also makes the kind of art Errol Morris makes, as Paige brilliantly notes, in which whole and part dance together in a wonderfully delicate yet amazingly powerful quodlibet. Or perhaps it’s a foxtrot, or a minuet. But I digress.

I hadn’t quite finished my Health Camp meal when I finished re-reading the Viola. I meditated for a bit, then flipped through the pages of the New Media Reader in search of another interesting nugget. I was, frankly, in the mood for a manifesto. I saw Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto,” but that was too direct for me at that moment, the glass of Dublin Dr. Pepper still half full. I wanted something stranger, or less direct. So I went to the next manifesto, on the very next page: “The GNU Manifesto.” I had a nodding acquaintance with the topic, and I was intrigued, since “open” as in “open source” has been a big topic of conversation at my workplace lately.

And then the tumblers aligned, the key turned into the lock, and the scales fell from my eyes:

Since “free” refers to freedom, not to price, there is no contradiction between selling copies and free software…. Because of the ambiguity of “free,” people have long looked for alternatives, but no one has found a suitable alternative. The English language has more words and nuances than any other, but it lacks a simple, unambiguous word that means “free,” as in freedom–“unfettered” being the word that comes closest in meaning. Such alternatives as “liberated,” “freedom” and “open” have either the wrong meaning or some other disadvantage.

And that was in a sidebar, quoted from “The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement,” by Richard Stallman, also the author of the Manifesto. It pays to check everything: sidebars, captions, titles, epigraphs, copyright pages, acknowledgements, dedications, even the little SDG at the bottom of Bach’s scores….

So I’m thinking today that the kind of education I want to support, and to co-create, is unfettered learning. The trick is to understand when open means unfettered, and when it might be a closed platform that sets us free (and I mean in terms of learning, NOT in terms of copyright. The copyright “protection” of closed LMS’s is actually one of those weakening prosthetics, as it keeps us from agitating vigorously for our Fair Use rights and keeps the current copyright jailers in the money). When does a curriculum unfetter us, and when is it a set of handcuffs? When does a teacher unfetter us? When do our classmates unfetter us? A classroom, or a credit hour system, or an advising system? And so forth. These are very difficult questions indeed, and of course some oppressors believe most sincerely (it seems) that they’re keeping handcuffs on for the inmates’ own good–and of course Stockholm Syndrome means that sometimes people don’t want to lose their fetters, so thoroughly do they identify with their captors.

But these are the complications we should confront continually, lest we fetter ourselves and others. Kierkegaard tells us that the worst despair is not to know you’re in despair. Blake anticipates Kierkegaard’s aphorism by calling the worst fetters “mind-forged manacles.”

In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

Only the awakened imagination can make us aware of those mind-forg’d manacles, let alone help us to slip their bonds and help to free our colleagues and fellow pilgrims. Let alone help us desist from creating them for others, among them, horribile dictu, even at times our best beloveds. I take it that that’s why Blake was a poet, that’s why Bill Viola does his art. But that’s also why scientists labor to uncover new knowledge, and talk so passionately–and imaginatively!–to their colleagues and to all of us about the scale, scope, and importance (and excitement!) of their work. For we are all imagineers, and we are all in this together….

And while Pete Townshend was right that there’s no easy way to be free, loosing fetters and creating portals to realms of greater unfetteredness for all is, I believe, one of the highest, noblest, trickiest, most exhilarating aspects of this thing we call, simply, education.

In my experience, no human invention has had greater potential for that unfettering than the Internet itself. The pub-sub model that Jon Udell describes in the podcast I linked to in my previous post is right on target about how that can and should happen. That the Internet also has the opposite potential (and that’s what we hear the most about, unfortunately–man bites dog and uploads video to YouTube) should surprise no one. Every powerful human invention cuts both ways. But that’s the bad news and the good news too. Both ways. And I suppose we have some say in the matter, if we can loose the mind-forg’d manacles that keep us from the freedom of the Internet itself….

Awaken the digital imagination, then strengthen the heart, hands, and mind for digital citizenship.

In that spirit, then, I offer a podcast recording of my keynote talk last Friday at the E-Learn 2010 conference. I called it “The Great Internet Backlash,” and through that lens I viewed what seem to me to be both the manacles and the possibilities for unlocking them. I believe I am right, but I am not sure of it. That’s why I want to keep this conversation going.

Conference website:

Archive of the talk with PPT slides: coming soon, I hope.

And here’s the recording I made. I hope it resonates. Let me know.


5 thoughts on “Free, as in Unfettered

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Free, as in Unfettered « Gardner Writes --

  2. Gardner,
    You are absolutely right about the reasons people text instead of or before they call. We were just talking about this recently with a group of college students, and I find their level of consideration for one another sweet, actually. And I feel the same way about email–I prefer it to a rudely ringing and demanding phone call most any time! If someone wants me RIGHT NOW, they should have a GOOD, time sensitive reason. Except for you, of course ; )

    I am seeing an interesting shift in the “digital divide.” Our highly protected and controlled-for-their-own-good UR students are finding themselves on the other side of that divide since they have been protected from getting out onto the world “wild” web . I am having a hard time convincing them, as we have a hard time convincing faculty, that writing is (still) changing and that we need to care about and practice things like digital stories. Whereas the kids at our local Boys and Girls Clubs are creating great stuff and throwing it up on youtube daily! Interesting, huh?

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