Degrees of Freedom in the Stockholm Archipelago
24 August 2013
In my recent work on the expansion of civilization it has become increasingly obvious to me that transportation technology plays a central role in civilization, and that it will continue to do so in of the foreseeable future. While human agency involves an ideal freedom to make of itself what it chooses (unless one is a determinist), and this is the ideal sense of freedom that Sartre often emphasized in his writings (and also the ideal sense of freedom I tried to outline in a recent online conversation), ideal freedom is constrained in fact by the capacities of the human body. In terms of transportation, this means that your desire to travel wherever you like is limited to where your legs can carry you — and before hominids adopted bipedalism, it was limited to where your arms could take you in the treetops.
In response to the human, all-too-human constraints imposed on our movement (and therefore upon our freedom) we have created technologies that have served the function of making our actual freedom of movement more closely approximate our ideal freedom of movement. In respect to transportation technology, in the whole of history it would be difficult to name a more momentous breakthrough than that of the canoe. It was with a combination of walking and canoeing that hominids settled the entire Earth. Later, we integrated the whole of the Earth through technologies that made travel more rapid and more comfortable — the sailing ship, the bicycle, the train, the automobile, the airplane, and the spaceship. All of these technologies have advanced civilization while allowing actual human freedom to more closely approximate ideal freedom, and this relationship between freedom and the expansion of civilization is rarely appreciated.
Even today, in the 21st century, the degrees of freedom one enjoys is predicated upon the transportation technologies to which one has access. If you are limited to walking, you can see a lot, but you can see much more in the same period of time if you have a bicycle, and much more yet if you have access to a car. But any of these technologies will still mean that you halt at the water’s edge, and given that the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, your freedom is significantly constrained by being limited to travel on land.
And so it is in the Stockholm archipelago, which consists of thousands of islands. Not to be able to travel on the water here is a palpable and immediate limitation of freedom. Looking out over the Stockholm archipelago one sees not only countless little islands, but also a swarm of small boats connecting these islands together. Wanting to experience this for ourselves, my sister and I rented a boat in Vaxholm and added another degree of freedom to our travel in Sweden by taking to the water of the Stockholm archipelago and passing almost effortlessly between the many islands within easy reach of Vaxholm — even stopping at an island restaurant to have lunch among the pine trees with no sign of any car in sight.
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