On the O’Reilly Radar Blog, Linda Stone posted an interesting expansion on comments in the recent Economist article featuring Freedom. Stone had been bearish on the general idea of Freedom and its ilk:
Ms Stone says Freedom and other such programs are “a first step”, since anyone who installs and uses one of them is admitting that there is a problem, and “something needs to shift”. But the next step is to go beyond a software crutch, Ms Stone says, and to learn to change one’s behaviour without the need for full-screen modes and internet-disabling utilities.
In the blog post, she expands on the general concept:
I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies over parental ones. Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.
With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.
I’d suggest reading the whole post – it’s good and very thought provoking – but I take issue with the central premise of Stone’s argument, that it’s just a matter of time until we “create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings.”
Here’s my argument: There’s no question that Freedom is a tyrant: but Freedom doesn’t control you, it controls technology. And I have to believe that to many industry insiders, this is an uncomfortable direction for technology to take.
It is not controversial to claim that the dominant ideology of computing in the modern era has been “bigger, better, faster.” In fact, this ideology – the connection between technological progress and advancement as a civilization – has stuctured the way we think about ourselves and other societies for hundreds of years. In the epilogue to his excellent book Machines as the Measures of Men, Michael Adas writes:
The long-standing assumption that technological innovation was essential to progressive social development came to be viewed in terms of a necessary association between mechanization and modernity. As Richard Wilson has argued, in American thinking, the “machine and all of its manifestations – as an object, a process, and ultimately a symbol – became the fundamental fact of modernism.”
Since the origins of the computing industry, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues in A Social History of Technology, the focus has been squeezing productivity out of machines and operators. This logic of practice was inscribed to the industry “because the government [the dominant early contractor of the computing industry], fighting the protracted cold war with the Soviet Union, believed that it would need better and better computation facilities…”
This constant drive towards efficiency has many rewards: Transistors that are orders of magnitude cheaper than ones produced just years prior, Terabyte disks that sit on desktops, and the iDevices that I so covet. My argument does not downplay the value of such advances, and to do so would be foolish.
Rather, I argue that the drive towards bigger, better, faster has left us with devices that are out of sync with our work patterns. To address the growing divergence between our devices and work practice, we’ve constructed and attempted to empiricize the concept of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking, as we now know, has decreasing marginal effectiveness as task complexity increases. Multi-tasking fails most those who need it most.
Flipping through the last ten years of CHI, CSCW, and GROUP proceedings, we see an array of systems built to support multi-tasking, to facilitate remote work, to prostheticise our beings. In these technologies we see the march towards progress, efficiency: bigger, better, faster.
Freedom joins these technologies in the march towards progress and efficiency, but with a different value set: smaller, better, slower.
In the past five or ten years, the devices we use for work have exploded in complexity. No longer a word processor or spreadsheet, our computers are now televisions, game machines, and – most importantly – a portal to an always-on channel of social exchange. Yet because these changes have been realized in code as opposed to form, we think of the device as static. A computer is just a computer. Rather, I see devices that are increasingly beginning to fail the market, with disastrous consequences for productivity, progress, and self-worth.
Freedom has always been about control. It was first designed to reclaim space – to return the pre-internet state of a coffee shop that has suddenly gone wi-fi. Only through extensive use have I realized that Freedom is about pushing back at the device itself, a device that has failed the work market in a drive toward progress.
In closing, Linda Stone asks “What tools, technologies, and techniques will it take for personal technologies to become prosthetics of our full human potential?” First, we must understand that we, humans, are not the problem. Second, we must reconsider our relationships with our devices, and examine with open minds where our devices have failed us. Third, we must change the ideology of the productivity industry, moving away from bigger, better and faster and towards smaller, better, and slower.
Of course, this is easier said than done. And it will almost certainly come from outside industry, which is constrained by its dominant logic of practice. But I can’t help but think that we’re at the beginning of something big.