The new year is off to a great start with a flurry of press coverage for both Freedom and Anti-Social. The coverage started with Pico Iyer’s wonderful New York Times piece, The Joy of Quiet. Iyer’s reflection on finding quiet in the modern world touched a nerve – in the new years there seems to be a coalescing sense of weariness around “connecting and sharing with people in our lives.”
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.
I’m happy to announce my newest productivity software: Anti-Social. Anti-Social is a neat little productivity application for Macs that turns off the social parts of the internet. When Anti-Social is running, you’re locked away from hundreds of distracting social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and other sites you specify.
I developed Anti-Social because of a problem I ran into consistently with Freedom – I loved being offline, but found myself frustrated when I needed to look up a citation or a new article when Freedom was running. Anti-Social allows you to tune out the social parts of the web – Twitter, Facebook, etc. – while allowing you access to research materials, Google, and other invaluable resources. I’ve been using it for the past few weeks while working on an R&R – Anti-Social allowed me to remain in focused writing mode, while allowing me to research as I revised the manuscript.
Together, Freedom and Anti-Social represent an emergent computing phenomena I’ve been calling “80% computing.” By taking problems that are socially or computationally hard (e.g. changing habits, reducing compulsive surfing), and providing imperfect solutions, I’ve found there’s an interesting spot in the market. I wonder what other highly complex problems (e.g. productivity) we could solve with 80% solutions? If we move away from perfection as a computational standard, and allow individuals to adapt their practice to imperfect technologies, we may be able to develop some very simple solutions to very challenging problems.
Along those lines, the Economist recently profiled my software in a wonderful article. I’ll quote at length:
“CLEAR your screen and clear your mind.” That is the philosophy behind a new wave of dedicated software utilities, and special modes in word-processing packages and other applications, that do away with distractions to enable you to get on with your work. The problem with working on a computer, after all, is that computers provide so many appealing alternatives to doing anything useful: you can procrastinate for hours, checking e-mail, browsing social-networking sites or keeping up with Twitter.
But in its severity and simplicity, Freedom (for Macintosh and Windows) may be the ultimate tool to ward off distractions: the virtual equivalent of retiring to a remote getaway, or going on a writers’ retreat, to get things done.
But fans of Freedom are not concerned by such philosophical niceties; they use it because it makes them more productive. Peter Sagal, the host of the American public radio show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, is one such fan. He has no trouble writing to a strict deadline at work. But outside work, “I simply can’t resist the call of a website or an RSS feeder or now my Twitter feed. I simply can’t do it,” he says. Before he started using Freedom he managed to write a book, but only by unplugging his cable modem to cut off his internet access. “But that was too easy to plug back in,” he says. The internet, he grumbles, has “murdered” his ability to do extracurricular creative work, such as writing books, plays and screenplays.
Hardware and software are usually sold on the basis that they can do more, do things faster or have whizzy new features. There is clearly a place for products that are simple to use and hide complexity—a hallmark of Apple’s products. It is perhaps more surprising that there also seems to be demand for products that disable features. But for people trying to get things done, a hobbled computer may in fact be more useful than a fully functional one, for an hour or two at least. Temporarily worse can, in some ways, be better.
Of note, the New York Post also ran an article that prominently featured Freedom and Anti-Social. The title of the article was a classic Post headline: Fatal Distraction.
I should close with the following. First, I am aware that spending time writing anti-procrastination software is actually meta-procrastination. Second, Anti-Social really is great. Check it out. It is a revelation to be on the un-social Internet. Finally, I’m waiting for Peter Sagal to come and ask me for a percentage of my sales. He is simply too kind with his advocacy of Freedom!
Over the past two years, countless people have written to me, asking if there is a version of Freedom for Windows. I hated telling people that they couldn’t have Freedom. I’m happy to report that if you’ve got a Windows XP, Vista, or 7 computer, you too can now experience Freedom.
Want to know a little more about Freedom? Read about it in the New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Education, LifeHacker, and others. I’m also quite partial to the recent article on Freedom in the Guardian that starts: “With the help of a lovely man called Fred, I’m no longer in thrall to SamCam’s cape and Guido Fawkes.”
Let me know what you think!
Google Booksearch is becoming one of my go-to scholarly resources. All of the evilness aside, it is extremely useful to be able to look up a chapter or section from a book (even if that book is on the shelf in the other room). Since I manage my reading lists with Amazon, I wanted to make it very easy to look up books in Google Booksearch from Amazon. So I created the following bookmarklet:
When you’re on an Amazon product page, click this bookmarklet and you’ll be taken to the Google Booksearch results for the book. If previewing is allowed for the book, you’ll be able to leaf through it before you purchase/borrow/walk to your shelf. To install the bookmarklet, drag the booksearch lookup link to your bookmarks folder.
Some quick notes on Booksearch: