Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Freedom is Hard to Sell

Imagine I've spent my life a captive - I live in a cell, never known anything else, but it's OK - I get to order food off a menu, I've got a big window (barred) which I can open for fresh air. The cell is spacious and comfy, I have a TV.

How do you persuade me that freedom is better?

You can point out that there is more space, I can go where I want and there's fresh air and sunshine.

I'll point out that I have all the fresh air etc I need, the cell is roomy and I can do everything I want *inside* my cell, why would I need to go anywhere else? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Lets say you somehow pursuade me to try it - maybe you give me a long chain so I can go about in the freedom world and mix with the people there when I want to, but can duck back into captivity if I get too uncomfortable.

The first thing I'm likely to want to try, as a sceptic, is to see if I can do the same things as when I am captive. I try to get my food.

The first thing I notice is that meals do not arrive at mealtimes - there's not even a slot under the door. I ask about this and find out that free people use things called cafes and restaurants to supply meals - which needs money, which means work. Even then it is often too expensive or inconvenient so they make their own meals in their accommodation - which is also work and you have to collect the raw materials in advance - which usually means money.

This is a much bigger hassle than I'm used to - why not just install a door-slot?

Anyway - what do I eat? In captivity I have a menu with tick boxes which makes choosing meals easy. In freedom I have a huge and confusing choice, and I have to worry about things like nutrition and the effects my choices may have on the wider environment.

In my cell I have work that I do - and what I want is taken care of. In freedom, I am working just as hard, but I also have to travel to markets and take care of my income and basic needs myself. Which means I am actually doing more work. I can get other people to do that in freedom too, but it turns out to be insanely expensive.

This sucks!

Of course it sucks! The mistake I've made is in trying to duplicate my captive circumstances in freedom.

I've been judging the merits of freedom the same way I would judge the merits of a cell. I can be forgiven for this - I don't know anything else. (I think of it as "pragmatic" - basing opinions on practical merit rather than ideology.) What I have discovered is that freedom does not, a nice comfy cell, make.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, I notice that if I try to order food that is not on the menu... or if I want my favourite meal tonight... you see, all those things I noticed I had to do to get a meal in freedom are actually the price free people pay for being able to have the meal they want pretty much when and how the want it. I'm not used to having that freedom, I don't expect it, so I only experience the downside.

You know, come to think of it, that person who helps me out when I mess up my cooking... is a pretty good cook, better than the prison cook. Nice looking too.

This analogy can be pushed further, but you get the idea.

I teach a getting-to-know-GNU/Linux course. The first thing each student does is attempt to reproduce their windows experience. Some even go so far as to make the desktop a clone of their windows one ... same themes, one workspace, a taskbar, start button, etc. They think this is testing out how good gnu/linux really is when they are actually hobbling it.

They discover quite quickly that they are not in a nice prison cell. They have not realised that it isn't supposed to be a cell of any kind.

Fortunately these students have a guide - it is possible to steer them to the more liberating aspects.

Some people are just going to insist that they don't like it anyway.

It is tempting to conclude that, in order to get more people out of their cells and into a free life, I should make freedom more like what they would judge to be a nice cell (perhaps temporarily). The trouble with that is, I risk removing the very feature (the freedom itself) that most makes leaving the cell desirable in the first place. Besides, temporary fixes have this way of becoming permanent.

On balance - if someone wants to live in a cell - insists on it - well, there are already cells for them. Good luck to them.

Reprinted from an earlier journal post (May 15, 2009)


  1. Thinking back to your iPad post. Apple is a cell in a high security prison, Windows a medium security one with an exercise yard?

  2. Only Apple stuff are very luxurious prisons - which is the rub. If the hotel is so nice you don't want to leave, ever, does it really matter that you can't?

    Which is why the purchase price of proprietary software is most often discussed. Most people leave a luxury hotel because they cannot afford to stay.

    I suspect Windows is more like an Alcatraz aspirant with corrupt screws - so it claims to be max security on a budget, but it is easy to escape once you meet the right people.