Die Gedanken sind frei

The internet was meant to facilitate our thoughts, not trap them

In the late 1700s, a student folk song floating around in Germany was finally written down and put to music. It was called “Die Gedanken sind frei,” “Thoughts are free.”

I heard it for the first time while I was listening to something by Simon and Garfunkel. One of the related recommended Amazon songs was a rendition by American folk singer Pete Seeger.

The lyrics go like this:

Die gedanken sind frei
My thoughts freely flower
Die gedanken sind frei
My thoughts give me power
No scholar can map them
No hunter can trap them
No man can deny
Die gedanken sind frei

It’s a beautiful song. It talks about this idea that human thought is the first and last frontier, our most private place, a place so sacred and important that it can’t be violated or guessed by another human being, and that if you can’t break a person’s thoughts, you can’t break them.

Freedom of thought has been a topic people have thought about as long as they’ve been thinking and recording things. For example, the original version of Die Gedanken Sind Frei song was around as early as 1200. As early as the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth was thinking about freedom:

[she] revoked a thought censorship law because, according to Sir Francis Bacon, she did "not [like] to make windows into men's souls and secret thoughts.”

Freedom of thought has been ruled upon by judges in the United States and encoded into the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom of thought is our first and last refuge, that thing if you strip away, you strip away the last shreds of human dignity. In account after account of people thrown into prison, they discuss keeping their minds strong to preserve their humanity. Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident trying to emigrate to Israel who was jailed in the gulag for nine years, played chess:

Half of that was spent in solitary confinement and for more than 400 days he was locked in a punishment cell, given barely any food and clothes so thin that in the winter it amounted to a form of torture.

As a child he'd been a chess prodigy and, aged 14, he became champion of his native Ukrainian town, Donetsk. He could play several games simultaneously in his head (without looking at a board) - a flashy but useless skill, he always thought. "But in prison it became clear why I needed this," he recalls. In his dark, empty, freezing punishment cell, with no-one to talk to, where he was forbidden to read or write, he played games in his head, obviously having to move for both sides, white and black: "Thousands of games - I won them all."

In a more mundane scenario, what we think and conceal from others is what gives us control over our lives and free agency, the most fundamental unit of being human.

Today, though, the amount of control we have over what happens to us is less than ever as we become completely captivated by today’s internet, glued to our phones: at restaurants, with our family, in the dark before bed.

Whereas before, phones were an extension of our everyday lives, today our lives are an extension of our phones, when we manage to glance up from them. Since I turned on my iPhone Screen Time Report, I realized that I spend upwards of 3 hours a day on my phone (much more since I started maternity leave and nursing).

What lures in our attention is not only the constant notifications (perfectly engineered to be addictive by people who took their cue from the casino industry), but the way we do things in our day-to-day lives.

For example, Instagram is notorious for inspiring a noxious magazine-glamour culture. This leads to Instagrammers who take vacations to Instagrammable locations and try to get the best shot, only to die in the process,

"They went into one of the pool systems that's up there to go swimming and three of them were walking along the edge of where the pool would be and at that stage they slipped and fell," Cpl. Sascha Banks said.

The fall was the equivalent of 10 stories, officials said.

Or people who become radicalized thanks to YouTube’s algorithms.

Or, how about some everyday, normcore examples? Spending hours feeling bad about ourselves because of the ridiculous mix of politics and show-off vacation photos from people we no longer talk to on Facebook?

There are hundreds of ways in which the modern internet undermines our freedom of thought, from making us available to our bosses 24/7, to making us miserable if we become popular, to tracking our every move, to breaking down moderators, to making it impossible to have civil discussions in public forums.

You name a broken internet thing, Normcore has covered it.

The crux of this problem is because the modern internet is geared towards directing our minds towards advertising and and buying something. In 2011, I tweeted,

This conflict has finally come to a head. It’s so bad that even Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, two of the prominent people behind the invention of the internet, are pretty stressed out,

“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

Our minds are completely and utterly captivated - and captured - by the internet and by our devices, and we are utterly helpless against the way they’ve been engineered exactly to play to our human curiosities.

Not only do today’s cell phones and websites clamor for our attention, but they also take from us: they take our data and files, and, most importantly, our intentions, be it through a recommender system, measuring churn, or any number of models that look at how humans move through the world and try to influence them to move differently.

I was thinking about all of this as I read this fantastic piece circulating last week, “Everything is Amazing but Nothing is Ours.” The piece is specifically about how we’ve given up control of physical objects like files to the mercy of SaaS apps and services:

Up until the mid 2000s or so, it felt like the collective goal of software and the internet was to create digital versions of all the stuff that worked well in real life – documents became Word, slides became Powerpoint, and mail became email. It’s also why files are called files, and why we got rid of them by dragging them into the trash can. Software was pretty skeuomorphic in design and in function. The file as an atomic unit for productivity made sense. It’s a solid, distinct object you could understand, and that was yours. You had to take care of it, name it properly, and save it in the right place, just like a paper file. 

But for the last ten years, we’ve been undoing all of that. The constraints of mobile, plus a new generation of users that’ve never really known life without the internet, meant the benefits of skeuomorphism were no longer worth the cost. Ditching it as a philosophy, both in design and in function, freed us to go out and reinvent everything as a service. Abstract everything away into databases, links and logic, and provide it as a consumer service with all the topology and complexity hidden out of sight. 

What we’ve given up in exchange for ease of use of these technologies, for frictionless communication, for likes, for the ability to buy kipple, is a lot. But ultimately what it comes down to, what we’ve really given away is the freedom of the movement of our thought.

And I’m not sure I know what to do about it, at all. I mean, if even Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee are wringing their hands, who am I, a mere pixel pusher, to come up with any solutions?

But I can say this: I’ve started keeping a physical notebook diary again. My husband and I stopped using our FitBits a long time ago. He bought an analog watch.

And I’ve also been listening to a lot of different versions of Die Gedanken sind frei and thinking about the song. This one is probably my favorite.

Where did I find the different versions?

Recommended to me by YouTube, of course.

Art: Freedom at the Aquarium, Sabin Balasa

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Brett Cannon wrote a really good post about Python virtualenvs

  2. Alex wrote about the first year of the Economist’s graphic data journalism publication

  3. Ode to good cookbooks

  4. This was a very, very depressing - and completely believable - read.

  5. I realized after reading this tweet that this was probably one of the genesis points of Normcore

  6. The piece I wish I’d written, analyzing Zuck’s haircut

  7. Good tweet and replies:

    About the Author and Newsletter

    I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and an infant, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

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