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 No phone fan: Edgar Degas (self-portrait, c.1857)

When telephones were still a rare possession, the French artist Jean-Louis Forain decided to install a telephone in his town house. Wanting to surprise his good friend Edgar Degas with it, he invited him around for dinner and made sure to leave the table and conspicuously take a call. When he returned to the dinner table, Degas drily remarked: "So that's the telephone? They ring, and you run." 

Today, he might have added: "And who else is listening?" 

Information is connected to communication technology just as the waffle does not exist independently of the waffle iron. And smartphones offer access to information about events in the public sphere. After all,           iPhone snaps taken at the Boston marathon helped investigators identify the suspects. Social protest movements across the world have captured the violence of oppressive regimes on smartphones. While smartphones and YouTube had not yet been invented at the time of 9/11, information on catastrophes and natural disasters can now instantly be uploaded to online emergency maps, a major development in crisis communication.  

However, Degas was less concerned with the transmission of information than with the ways that the telephone interferes with people's behaviour in social situations. More than half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin proposed a distinction between two kinds of freedom: negative and positive liberty. While positive freedom is the freedom to act as you wish, negative liberty means to be free from obstacles and constraints. 

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