Freedom as the censorship of unfreedom

Published on Sunday May 29th, 2011

In a lengthy post on Wikipedia, Maria Bustillos writes:

But it’s already clear that Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of “authority,” “authorship,” and even “knowledge.”

This is true, but only in a shallow sense. It’s based on an account of authority where I once had power, freedom, etc., and that was stolen from me by another person who I now resent because this Other enjoys what is rightfully mine. This enjoyment might appear as mockery - what I resent about elite knowledge is the way they enjoy my ignorance, laughing and smiling at my naivety.

Moving to crowdsourced, collaborative authorship replaces this enjoying Other with an abstract, depersonalized process or algorithm that still deprives me of freedom and power, but subtracts the enjoyment. This parallels the move from traditional aristocracy (literal individuals and bloodlines) to capitalist meritocracy (elite status “granted” by market forces) - even though a class system still exists, it’s experienced as a pseudo-liberation because the Other who enjoys in my place is obscured.

No wonder that Jarod Lanier’s strategy for criticizing Wikipedia is to repersonalize it, calling it “the collective” who deprives the individual of the enjoyment of their genius.

The edit button is Wikipedia’s greatest ideological fantasy. It provides the appearance of individual empowerment, while in practice, the majority of edits made by those outside of the inner circle are reverted. The meaning is not that this inner circle is enjoying in our place - on the contrary, they revert our edits for us, to relieve us of the burden of this freedom.

But then why not simply remove the edit button? Perversely, the edit button is a response to a demand for censorship, that all forms of our unfreedom be suppressed and replaced with meaningless exclamations about empowerment, a discourse that is most concerned with saving us from the embarrassing fact of our unfreedom in the eyes of the Big Other, the agency behind the bumper sticker “Question authority.”


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