Ming the Mechanic:
Freedom and Complexity

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Freedom and Complexity2008-07-11 01:43
picture by Flemming Funch

What is freedom? There are many definitions, like here from dictionary.com:
  1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.
  2. exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.
  3. the power to determine action without restraint.
  4. political or national independence.
  5. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
  6. exemption from the presence of anything specified (usually fol. by from): freedom from fear.
  7. the absence of or release from ties, obligations, etc.
  8. ease or facility of movement or action: to enjoy the freedom of living in the country.
  9. frankness of manner or speech.
  10. general exemption or immunity: freedom from taxation.
  11. the absence of ceremony or reserve.
  12. a liberty taken.
  13. a particular immunity or privilege enjoyed, as by a city or corporation: freedom to levy taxes.
  14. civil liberty, as opposed to subjection to an arbitrary or despotic government.
  15. the right to enjoy all the privileges or special rights of citizenship, membership, etc., in a community or the like.
  16. the right to frequent, enjoy, or use at will: to have the freedom of a friend's library.
  17. Philosophy. the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.
So, mostly we're talking about that you can think and say and/or do what you want. You can make decisions, you can move around freely, you're free from outside control. Which combination of these is implied depends on the context.

There are other definitions of freedom, like, in science one talks about degrees of freedom, in the sense of the number of parameters in some process, or the number of directions in which some mechanical element can move. That's a different thing, but still related.

Interestingly, none of these definitions talk directly about what you get out of it, what that buys you, and how useful and valuable that is. Yes, these kinds of freedom is something good and valuable in itself. Some of them are positioned as human rights or privileges, something that people would want to have if they don't have it, and which might be an end in itself. But there's kind of more to it. There's an important ingredient in freedoms that we will experience as valuable.

If you can sit in prison and think anything you want, is that freedom?

If you can say anything you want, but you can't do anything about it, is that freedom?

Here are some other definitions of freedom that I made up:
  • The potential to do small actions that make a big (positive) difference
  • Degree of leverage (amplification) in your choices
  • Degree to which you’re in the right place at the right time, and the right things happen
See, freedom doesn't feel a lot like freedom unless you can accomplish something desirable with it. Not just theoretically, but really.

Let's take an example. Let's say I'm in the position to give you 10 square miles of property in the Sahara. Including some millions of tons of sand. It is yours to keep. You can do whatever you want with it, nobody's going to bother you, you've got totally free hands. You can say or do anything you want there. Total freedom. No? You don't want it?

The thing is that you probably wouldn't know what to do with it. Or, rather, it would be a whole lot of trouble and require a lot of additional resources to do anything useful with it. Even though it is free, and you're free to do what you want. In reality you can't do much with it.

OK, how about this car on the left? Take it home, here's the pink slip, do with it what you want, total creative freedom.

Or would you rather have the car on the right? It is tanked up, ready to go, it takes off vertically, flies 300 km/h, the keys are in the ignition, it has GPS, it handles like a charm.

Chances are that the flying car there feels more like freedom to you than the wreck on the left. Even though, according to all the definitions of freedom at the top, you had the same amount of freedom.

Not all freedom is worth having.

The freedom you want is where you have the most options, and you get the most bang for your buck.

This is where we get into complexity. Complexity in the sense of an intricate web of connections between stuff that together will do something potentially cool, useful and/or surprising.

Now, that old clunker of a car up there. If you were well versed in the rich history of this car model, and you were mechanically gifted, and you had power tools, a network of parts suppliers, appreciative friends, a cozy garage, and a lot of time on your hands, that could be a great project. That could be freedom, but it requires this network of stuff connected to it for it to come to life.

Those 10 square miles of Sahara desert, if you had engineers, bulldozers, a power plant, and a huge budget, you could build the city of your dreams.

The usefulness of freedom depends on the complexity of the system around you.

You don't want to have to do it ALL yourself. You want knowledge, tools, financing, friends, partners, etc. You want things to happen. When you push buttons, you want things to get into motion.

We might forget to notice the richness of the complex world that exists around us. Most elements in our lives depend on a complex web of connections. You can only call somebody on your mobile phone because a lot of events have happened previously, clever people inventing and improving pieces of technology, connecting them together. You only have somebody to call because you have gone through the process of having friends, with which you have something in common. They again have other connections, other skills, other knowledge, etc.

This whole complex web of people and stuff has evolved and self-organized. Not in a random way, but through a large number of meaningful individual actions. It is not the most perfectly organized and efficient system, but it is more or less the best thing that could have happened by itself. What you're in is a network, a system, where lots of work has gone into the way things are connected. Most of the pieces are already wound up, ready to go in one way or another. A system where, if you do something, it is likely to have an effect. Most of the time a small effect, but sometimes a big effect. Because everything is connected together, and if you manage to be in the right place at the right time, all the leverage in the world is potentially available to you. There's no perfect formula for knowing where that is, but the opportunity is there.

My point is that useful freedom involves leverage, being able to do a lot with a little. To do that requires some kind of complex set of connections between people and resources. Large dynamic systems, like social networks, tend to self-organize into a critical state, the most efficient way it could have happened by itself, a state where there are lots of opportunities for making things happen.

It is a bit of a mental leap to make freedom have something to do with complexity, but it makes sense to me. And of course it would be worthwhile to understand complexity a lot better. Particularly the type of complexity that might maximize freedom and value for the greatest number of people.

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11 Jul 2008 @ 04:50 by mortimer : Freedom and Responsibility

If people knew what freedom really meant then they would have no fear. Today we live in a fear-based society built by fear-base religions, and today almost everybody fears authority. Most people honor the boundaries only because they fear the consequences. Don’t believe me. Ask someone ‘’what is the difference between fear and respect’’, most likely they won’t be able to correctly answer the question.

Outside of the common brainwash, fear and respect are not directly related.
Here are the direct polarities,

Condemn --------- Respect

Fear --------- Courage

Understand the difference between fear and respect.

Freedom means you are free to be responsible. No one has any rules or regulations for you to follow because you are a responsible individual: responsible for your own behavior, responsible for your generations, responsible for Mother Earth, responsible for every living being, and responsible for the Universe. That's what freedom is.

Freedom . . . You are free to be responsible. If you are a responsible person, then you need no laws. If you are a responsible person, then you're proud of who you are.  

11 Jul 2008 @ 05:45 by bushman : Hmm,
Freedom is a joke based on money, you can be free and live like an animal, or you can be free with piles of money, and the laws that come with it. Regaurdless there is 6 billion individuals, and there has to be laws. Dreams---------Jokes, Money----------Laws Dreams-------Money-------Laws--------Jokes :}  

11 Jul 2008 @ 06:18 by mortimer : The pebble in the pond
Freedom and Responsibility go hand in hand. Each pebble in the pond makes big waves. Whether you realize it or not, every little thing you do affects everybody. The pond is a pebble. The key to being able to do a lot with a little.  

12 Jul 2008 @ 19:58 by Ernst @ : freedom to surf the wave
For me freedom would be enough room to find the "edge" and stay with it. Some organisations (or societies) dont allow for enough freedom. but to much isnt good either (like running around on the beach, somewhere away fromthe wave)

the responsebility for that freedom is to be mindfull of the wave. I somehow think we should build our own degrees of freedom (and some constraints, or guides)  

13 Jul 2008 @ 11:35 by ming : Responsibility
One way of looking at responsibility in relation to freedom is that if everything is well connected, everything is part of a rich context, a grid of connections, you can't easily run away from the consequences of your actions. You know, like if you live in a small town where everybody knows each other. If you do something stupid, everybody will know. If you have lots of friends and family, they are likely to try to talk you out of doing irresponsible things. That could be both good and bad, of course, as it might be hard to do something really new if everybody around you has an opinion about it. But the good part is that there's a certain stability and sanity check in being part of a community.

If we're all strangers to each other, it is a lot easier to use freedom in an irresponsible and destructive manner, because we might run away from the consequences.

The evolving connectedness on the net tends to both allow you to launch something new, and find people who would be interested in it, but it also tends to keep you honest, as everybody else easily can fact check what you're saying, share stories about the bad consequences of what you did, etc.  

15 Jul 2008 @ 16:48 by Bob Hiltner @ : Systems and Freedom
Insightful and fascinating. I don't know if I've thought of things in this way, exactly, and it makes sense. It seems to me that perhaps the freedom is similar, and the usefulness is what changes. I think that freedom without obvious usefulness still has enormous value. Creativity and invention from need, from freedom + lack of something wanted.... Obviously the more fertile the ground, the more bountiful the crop potential.

One funny thing about infrastructural complexities and network improvements is that they're so easily taken for granted, We tend to grossly undervalue them. As we go along in the United States, for example, the successful politician does not put a lot of resources into building the system, whether it be electric grid that would be more reliable or able to harvest vast wind resources, or whether it is highways, bridges, or to a lesser extent, education. These bets are typically too long in America for them to be politically useful. Extremely high leverage in terms of overall benefit, the network infrastructure still lacks political ownership because we think of optimizing our local pieces of the system, at the expense of the overall system, rather than vice versa.

While there is value in building and optimizing the whole system, where are the leverage points to achieve it?  

15 Jul 2008 @ 23:47 by ming : Leverage points
Bob, long time no see!

Well, if there were ways of measuring it, it might make all the difference. It is hard to make good decisions about stuff we have a hard time seeing. Sufficiently direct visualization of whole systems could make it very difficult, even for politicians, to keep making really bad choices.

We take all our accumulated know-how embedded in complex networks too much for granted. We can get a sense of it when we imagine apocalyptic scenarios. If civilization breaks down to some significant extent, how sure am I that somebody still knows how to make lightbulbs or computer chips or airplanes? Even if textbooks survived, the know-how would have depended on a network, and if the network falls apart, there might be important things we'd forget how to do.

As to freedom, yes, maybe it is essentialy the same freedom, just with the added dimension of how useful it is in the setting one is in.

There's the old saying that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Meaning, you both need to show up with your skills and with your stuff in order, and you need an environment that provides an opportunity. Which is a bit like you both need freedom, in the sense of possessing some range of movement and the ability to choose, and you need to be plugged into a sufficiently complex environment to be able to do something interesting with it.

Leverage is when freedom meets complexity.

A shame that complexity has many meanings. Maybe there's a better word somewhere, that includes the sense of systemic self-organization towards synergetic potential.  

16 Jul 2008 @ 11:49 by ming : Standards
Well, the internet is based on standards, in the sense of standardized protocols like http and smtp. And there are standardized protocols in place that potentially could make the internet much more what we'd like it to be, i.e. the semantic web. There are too many things you can't easily connect with in a standardized way. I.e. you can get at the content if you go to a certain web site, maybe sign up, and then you read what is there. But if you could get to everything in a unified way, without having to go to hundreds of different places, then you'd really be more connected and more kinds of self-organization would be possible.  

17 Jul 2008 @ 03:33 by gregorylent @ : freedom
not freedom for the ego, freedom from the ego is what is useful  

17 Jul 2008 @ 12:04 by ming : Freedom and Fun
OK, yes, it would be a bit boring if "usefulness" were the only criterion. There are lots of cool things that one can do that aren't strictly speaking useful, or sensible, but which nevertheless are worth doing. And we need people who look at things at a bit differently, like artists, or pranksters, to discover the potential in what we otherwise might discard. Somebody comes along and connects the dots we didn't see, shows it from another angle, and suddenly it is beautiful. An old wreck becomes a work of art, a stack of worn out tires could become a home, and somebody would love to go surfing on the sand dunes.

Then again, it still comes back to some kind of complexity. There needs to be some dots to connect, some people to do it with and for, some story to weave around it, etc. But it is important to leave lots of doors open for creativity and serendipity, for discovering the magic we didn't see at first. Freedom to go in many directions, without them having to fit anybody's criteria for what is useful or proper.  

18 Jul 2008 @ 05:30 by a-d : This is what
I have come to understand about us Humans and Freedom/let's call it Freedom of Choice/Free-Wil-Choice: Our freedom of Choice is invertedly proportional to our PREJUDICE. The more prejudice; the less Freedom of Choice --and thank G--- the opposite is also true: the LESS prejudice, the more freedom to choose as it pleases us! : )  

18 Jul 2008 @ 13:39 by ming : Prejudice
Well, prejudice is one way of limiting the field of possibilities, insisting that only a limited number of them are acceptable. Thinking one knows in advance what is right. So, yes, that's sort of the opposite of freedom.  

18 Jul 2008 @ 14:43 by a-d : 99%
of all our "Ideas About Life", you know; all those "this is how it is" & "this is how it can ever be/come" all these in-advance-limits to Life we like to hang on to really are the root to all stupid Human behavior....methinks...;) ...and if 'you' now keep in Mind, that "Stupid" means CLOSED Minded/to insist keeping One's Mind closed -as in shut /down from taking in any New Input/s/Ideas/POSSIBILITIES of Realities as well as ABILITIES .... Well....  

22 Jul 2008 @ 09:19 by Ernst @ : responseblity
I like Swanny's view that there is more than usefullness. I find myself chasing waves that remain just out of reach. Instead there might be waves forming on the spot that I'm swimming at. I agree the "network" plays a very large part in the using/exercising your freedom. But one has to develop the awareness to
1. see the criticallity
2. know how to lever your network
3. do something (anything, I guess).

how do you maintain this awareness regarding complexity and freedom?  

12 Sep 2008 @ 22:49 by b : freedom
Thee is also freedom from = freedom to and effortless, limitless freedom.
Power in restraint is freedom too. Choice and preference yours.  

21 Nov 2008 @ 08:24 by jewel @ : global brain critical point
the way that freedom can be leveraged, via synchronicity, all lined up, all set --- is what will create the critical mass for the global brain to emerge.

hence, chaos theory, the edge, becomes the centre, centrifical force, that creates a new gravity for a new horton hears a who who who who who!  

Other stories in
2012-05-03 00:04: An evolving path
2012-01-02 13:52: 2011 Accomplishments and 2012 Aims
2011-11-17 02:20: Your inner piece
2011-02-01 00:05: Slow Mo Flow
2011-01-22 18:40: Recognition
2010-08-23 00:36: Where's Ming?
2010-07-20 14:24: Getting other people to do stuff
2010-06-22 00:27: Inventory
2010-06-19 23:10: Conversations
2009-10-28 12:31: Then a miracle occurs

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