Illusions of Digital Freedom


Tom Hemmings
(Autumn, 2013)

    I am a member of the “Millennial” generation, also referred to as the “Echo Boomers” or “Generation Why?” In my short 25 years of life, I, along with my Millennial peers, have witnessed the advent, acceleration, and massive proliferation of digital technology.  We have been steeped in an online world practically since birth.  

     As a youth, I did not grasp any obvious truth connected to this dawn because it was my natural environment.  In my teenage years I don’t think anyone among my peers (including myself) were aware of the pioneering we were engaged in while growing up with the online world!  Nor did I have an objective understanding of the rise of this nascent chapter in the story of human civilization.  I had no idea that this new era would be a permanent change in the landscape of human–and social–interaction.  For me?  It was just the way things were!

      In this article I will share some thoughts on the rise and exponential, rapid growth of The Social Era.  Accompanying this, I will offer some commentary on how these changes have affected my understanding of varying areas of concern, one of which being my American Constitutional rights.  The generation that preceded mine seems to have a clear picture of those rights, an understanding that was formed long before the Internet was even introduced to society.  I do not have the best working knowledge of the history of privacy rights in America and how they’ve evolved over time; however, I can sense that the society altering technology we use every day has transformed our culture to the point where we risk losing the true meaning behind the concept of privacy that the Bill of Rights was designed to secure and protect (privacy of beliefs, papers, etc.)  I do also believe that it may be difficult for my generation–who grew up being fed TV shows that revealed every private facet of a person’s life–to achieve a clear understanding of the right to “privacy” or what the word truly even means. I have many observations, and a lot of questions.

     Necessary for these observations will be some considerations of human nature itself, what at our country’s foundation were called “self-evident truths,” and how, with what I think were the best of intentions, the transfer of computer technology from military use to commercial availability and consumption has perhaps had unintended consequences critical to understanding our current culture.

My First Computer

     When the first computer my family bought was up and running in my house, my parents stressed the need for strict limitations for its use.  This was done in an effort to keep my brother and me “normal;” and to ensure we would not become reclusive computer nerds.  My parents, themselves “Baby Boomers,” saw the computer in a negative light (along with probably many parents from this generation.)  They often used the juxtaposition of examples between what they did as children and what the kids in my generation did (computer, video games, etc.) compared to, say, their playing ball games in the schoolyard, as evidence of how the computer negatively impacted society.  

     What I heard from them was that the primary symptom of the online world had a dehumanizing effect, creating and fostering anti-social tendencies that would only get worse due to a lack of the practice of face-to-face interaction.  Essentially, their problem with the computer came down to the fact that they just didn’t see it, or the Internet, as something that would synthesize well with human nature.  

     It’s not hard to see that being on a computer is VERY entertaining in many ways.  Back in elementary school, I was all about Putt-Putt the race car and some fish whose name I can’t remember.  Middle school was a graduation to instant messaging, trying to talk to girls online, hanging out in chat rooms where my classmates and I congregated and had some quite ridiculous conversations.  Along the way, we tackled all the best video games out there, WarCraft, Diablo, Counter-Strike, all of it online, all of it connected.  By the time we were in high school, the “Social Era” had grown from something that we all participated in to a certain degree, to it becomng the primary vehicle driving the "social scene" at school.

     Whenever my parents felt I was going overboard with any of that, they would force me to shut down.  At the time they were having this “discussion” with me about why I needed to get off of the computer, I disagreed with them simply because I wanted to stay online!  However, today, in this journal article, I will lay out my disagreement with them on a philosophical level.  I think they missed what is so great about the Internet and the huge changes that have come with The Social Era.  And maybe, also, they saw some consequences I did not foresee.  

     By the way, I don’t blame them for their concerns.  I doubt anyone could have guessed what was going to happen when the whole world would communicate with one another online!

Enlightened Transcendence vs. Entertaining Enslavement

     The emergence of the digital, online world introduces humanity not only the opportunity to “improve and perfect” human nature, but maybe to transcend altogether the limitations and constraints necessarily tied to “the human condition.”  Maybe this is overstating the case, but maybe not!

    I can see a potential we have yet to reap that exists in Internet/computer technology.  In probably less than a decade, the technology we have now will seem like an original Sony PlayStation © compared to the PS4 © (yet to be released). For my parents, probably the difference between black and white TV and color TV might be a good analogy to what we will probably see over the next decade.  

     When my parents were young children, TV’s were ubiquitous.  But THEIR parents were worried that they would spend all their time watching the “Boob Tube,” instead of playing in the tree house (!) The concerns of parents through history about such things seem to me to have more to do with fearing the unknown than with any of the technology itself.  My bet (I did not look this up) is that my grandparents’ parents were probably worried about the effect of the radio on their childrens’ behavior!  

     It seems as if, repeatedly, new technologies are introduced to the world that forever change the way society functions.  The possibility that this particular new form of entertainment will captivate us to the point of obsession is feared and its down sides are emphasized.  Putting in place strict limitations often just produces a rebellion.  I, myself, did not grow up with notions of using the Internet to self actualize my being, nor did I ever think of it as something that could be used to "transcend the human condition" or (certainly) not used to go to college!  The online world was framed for me by my parents, then it seemed to turn into something neither my parents nor I imagined it would become.  All the while, I had to work to avoid catching flak for staying online playing games too much.  Now?  I think we are all in a new “game” and I have the feeling that no one yet can see what "bosses" might be waiting for us, nor what special “loot” might surprise us as we go forward. 

     All the devices that we depend on for school and work, that we bury our faces in all the time today?  They will most likely be part our clothing tomorrow.  They will probably not require our total attention as, even now, I can just yell out to my Siri iPhone with only partial attention to call a friend while totally engaged in another activity.  Why carry a cell phone when you can wear it instead, right?  I would not be surprised if these types of technologies end up inside of us, to be honest.  No one knows yet, but it seems to be going in that direction.  I wonder if the technology of our future will be used to further ingrain in us our fixation for entertainment, or, if we will figure out how to use it to improve the general well being of the human race and planet Earth? 

    The self-destructive, earth-killing tendencies we humans display in our behavior is atrocious.  We can see in just the history of my grandparents’ generation (50 million people died in WWII)–I think the possibility of an encore could perhaps be mitigated if we utilize the Internet correctly.  The opportunity seems to be there for greater and greater understanding among nations with more and more communication among people who would never have even known the other existed in the past!  Perhaps we can finally get over our differences!  What are the chances that this will actually happen?  I’m not so sure about that.  But it feels possible.

     Just because a prospect of transcending “the human condition” exists, does not necessarily mean we will realize the potential.  In fact, our Social Era could easily become quite the opposite: the most constraining and debilitating device of involuntary (or voluntary, come to think of it) enslavement the human race has ever seen.  Just as we are now equipped with a power far beyond any we’ve ever had for communicating with each other, expressing ourselves, spending time online doing things to quench our thirst for meaning–we are now also  endowed with the ability to not only get caught up and absorbed in our more trivial vices, but  completely consumed by them.  My strong feeling is that which way it turns out, is up to us. 

Enhancing the Human Spirit?

     I think that rooted deep in the human breast is a drive, a need, for connection, meaning, and interaction.  For example, it is a profoundly terrible thing for a baby to be ignored and not interacted with, also quite profound is a baby’s reaction to a simple smile.  What else do you know of that can make an entire room of well educated professionals start babbling and cooing all at once?  I think we are naturally hard-wired to gravitate toward one another. In fact, I think this is necessary for our own survival. It is, most probably, why we are social!

     Perhaps our need to interact with one another is a reason why the punishment of “solitary confinement” is considered one of the most awful conditions for an individual to experience.  The bottom line for us humans: we depend on and yearn for the enchantment and ecstasy we derive from other people. These bonds create circumstances in which our species thrive.  

     Immersing ourselves with loved ones, friends, and other fruitful relationships–intertwining our lives–we grow and love and live together, becoming more complete people in the process.  

     In constructing the vast online world we know today, we have inundated ourselves with the capability to fulfill what naturally exists in our individual hearts–this need and desire for connection–unlike any capacity we’ve had before.  But—it’s easy to over-indulge in transient connections.  So, a dangerous slippery slope.  But couldn’t that happen before The Internet?  Didn’t people make wrong choices about connections when there were no ways to connect online?  Now our ability to do so has increased exponentially.

     The Internet gives us the ability to render the distance between two points irrelevant.  We can share with each other the most important, significant happenings in our lives–or something completely droll, idiotic, or senseless.  No matter what the content is or how we choose to structure it, we are free to communicate what we will, to whom we choose, at almost any time we choose.  

     In my observation, I think it’s a true statement to say that people don’t always know what is best for them.  Online technology gives us such tremendous power to satisfy our desires for connection, whatever they may be (“good” or “bad”).  With this power, we can become easily distracted.  Instead of using the Internet as a means towards self-actualization, we could end up submerged in mind-numbing nonsense.

     There is another hunger within us, equally potent and powerful, an initiative we all take that separates us and makes us unique, giving each one of us that special differentiating characteristic, individualizing us, making each person a personalized flavor of the human character.  This hunger maybe could be termed expression itself.  

     Everyone I know goes about expressing who they are in day to day life in a different way–I can even say you do, despite the fact that I most likely don’t know you at all.  The old adage “no two snowflakes are alike” speaks volumes about the human character because we seem by nature to strive to separate ourselves from everyone else through the way in which we express our personality.  

     Simply put, we seem to be creatures inclined to speak freely and express ourselves in a way that reaches up into the highest peaks of our souls, satisfying the songs of our hearts’ desire. I think this is what the Social Era is about.  At least, that’s what it should be about, right? 

Unrelenting Progress

     From the basic chat rooms and services we had in the mid to late 90’s, to the highly sophisticated social networks we know today, there were several forces carrying forward the tide of our progress.  I cannot speak with an expert opinion on what these forces were.  I do not know all of what motivated and compelled the inventors and innovators of the tech we have but I have mentioned some of what I think those forces were above.  Nor can I say for certain what decisions were made or processes implemented in transitioning ARPANET to what we now know as the Internet.  

     Most of all, I do not know the way in which our technology in the present day is maintained and monitored behind the scenes–certainly, what was recently revealed about this (the NSA controversy) is troubling and, I feel confident more will be revealed (see The Deep Dark Net by Meg Tufano in this issue of The Journal).

     The only viewpoint from which I can speak toward “what forces drive the Social Era” would be that of the consumer.  From this vantage point, it would seem as if this era is being driven forward by our very nature itself: our desire for products and services that render us connected via the internet at all times.  Human nature is by default social and–possibly by design–dependent on meaningful connections and freedom of expression.  This creates the need for products to be made that will simultaneously satisfy those desires.  And then we post away, are we, in the process, and without any strong intention, transforming society? Will it be transformed for the better?  I don’t think anyone can know.

     Sometimes I feel as if for all the progress we’ve made–socially, culturally, intellectually, technologically–we’ve done nothing but replace the “shadows on the wall” (re: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, The Republic (514a-520a)) with “pixels on the screen.” 

Trouble in Paradise

     What this boils down to is the fact that as consumers, we view the Internet as a means to just go about living as humans who have become integrated with technological enhancements, to improve our general well-being. How the Internet affects other users?  We probably do not worry too much (unless we happen to be parents (!)).  In any case, our purposes in using these technologies are not motivated by any kind of “big picture” or any philosophy that I can see.  We seem mostly to be motivated by our immediate desires. 

      Could this be analogous to the use of fossil fuels?  We just wanted to drive somewhere, not thinking about harming our planet?  Could the Internet be causing a loss of freedoms inadvertently?  For example, we are not certain how our government operates in regard to this entirely revolutionary technology that our species has created.  We can never be certain, because true transparency does not (and maybe should not) exist.  The Snowden revelations demonstrate a lesson: the power we’ve gained to go about using the Internet in a way that aligns with human nature–to be connected with each other and express ourselves as individuals–is directly proportional to the power the government has obtained for carrying out easier surveillance OF our connections. The mission statement of the inventor of the Internet, DARPA, is, “to prevent war.”  It is further tasked with making sure that the U.S. is not surprised by another country’s technical superiority (as the U.S. was when Sputnik was launched by the former USSR in 1957).  Is this now easier surveillance both fulfilling the military’s mission statement while, at the same time, invading our privacy?  That is a paradoxical situation that I do not know the answer to!  In a republican democracy such as ours, we citizens must be vigilant!  That is, we must work together with the government to ensure our best interests are always at heart!  The Social Era is perfectly suited for the task.

Old World Rights, New Age Era

     It would seem then, that two integral features of the human character–connection and expression–have been forever changed, for the better or worse, by the online world and digital technology.  This change was accompanied with a transformation in the powers available to businesses and governments worldwide.  My country–America–was founded on a certain set of principles––among them, the notion that free speech shall never be infringed upon, nor shall our citizens be insecure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects” (Amendment IV, Bill of Rights).  We cannot let the essence of our rights by preyed upon by the nature of online connections.  It is absolutely imperative that we work to reconcile our rights with the online world, else we risk losing them.

     Consider our society in relation to these principles–isn’t the concept of going paperless something that needs to be addressed?  Does the government having access to, monitoring, and profiling everything we do, look at, and say make our “persons, houses, papers and effects” susceptible to infringement, even if not ill-intentioned?  Does the government (or, for that matter, Google) slivering their way into the totality of content and metadata conceived in the Social Era, might they constitute what could be called an unreasonable search a priori (by definition)? 

     When the American Republic first illuminated the world with universal human rights, events were set in motion that would make the U.S. a protector of liberties and human rights.  With utmost vigilance, the American Republic has fought to protect the rights and liberties it affords not just to its own people but to other nations and peoples in their pursuit of freedom.  I think it is our duty as citizens to safeguard our constitutional rights, that for which our forefathers shed their blood in the fight for our freedom.  The Internet has redefined the rules of human communication.  As such, we need to help our representatives work out how to maintain the spirit of our Republic in this new Social Era in which we live.  If we are not successful, I fear that the concept of “digital freedom” will remain an illusion.


Author Bio:  

     I'll introduce myself to you by sharing what will become an open secret: Tom Hemmings is not my real name. At my work, it is very easy to get in trouble for what I say online. So for now, I am trying to stay under the radar. That being said, I'm 25 years old, have a BA in Philosophy, and am putting a most sincere effort into pursuing my lifelong dream: to be a successful author. I was raised in a family with traditional Italian, "family first" values. I like to think I embody those values, but put "modern twist" to them. I was also raised Catholic but would have appreciated the opportunity to choose what religion to follow, if any at all! My father is a veteran of the Iraq war, just as his father was a vet of WW2---so I'm a staunch supporter of our troops and all the military families out there! My passions include writing, learning, and soccer. I have not previously had any work published before but am hopeful that this will be the first of many!

How to cite the above article in APA format:

Hemmings, Tom (2013).  Illusions of digital freedom. Journal of Social Era Knowledge,   
       Volume 1, Issue 3.  Retrieved from

About the Artist:

Peter Gentenaar writes:  

     My interest in paper started while working as a printmaker, when my engravings had such deep relief, that commercial paper could not fill it. 

     I decided to make my own paper and was helped by Jo Persoon at the Royal Dutch Paper Factory, KNP. He taught me about beaters for making paper pulp and vacuum systems to suck water out of pulp, to make paper. The laboratory beater I used was unable to process long fibers, so I built a beater of my own design. 

     A paper sheet is thin and strong and, reinforced with very thin ribs of bamboo, can be compared to a leaf. By beating pulp a long time, an extraordinary play of forces occurs during the drying process of my paper sculpture. The paper shrinks considerably, up to 40%, and the force of this puts the non-shrinking bamboo framework under stress, just as a leaf when it dries. 

      My sculptures start as totally 2-dimensional, colored sheets of pulp laying on my vacuum-table. The forms in my work are caused by pulp drying and shrinking in unison. The simplicity of the material, which is the carrier, the color, the texture and the form, in one, makes working with it wonderful and direct. 

     To bring paper art to the public and to be inspired by fellow paper artists, I instigated the Holland Paper Biennial in Museum Rijswijk and CODA, Apeldoorn. With friends, Pat and I have published seven books with the first seven Biennials.

     To learn more about this fascinating artwork or to reach the artist, Peter can be reached through his website at the following URL:

[Art for this article entitled, Spanish Knot, 100 cm wide, 110 cm high and 70 cm deep, material linen and bamboo.]