Slate contributor Katie Roiphe has a piece about Freedom, the turn-off-the-Internet app.
How many people made New Year’s resolutions to spend less time on the Internet? Yet another friend recently recommended that I try Freedom, the popular program that “locks” you off the Internet. The ubiquitousness of this program, which calls itself “a simple productivity application,” feels ominous to me….
The name of the program has to be part of its success; it plays on our hidden desires, the better self we are hoping for, links the program in our heads to revolutions, Arab springs, Thomas Jefferson. And yet the name also pleasantly and politely hints at another word: enslavement. What is frightening is the lack of control implied by this program, the total insufficiency of will when it comes to the Internet. Its generally upbeat vibe gestures toward a certain underlying desperation. I particularly like the comically Orwellian phrase on its website: “freedom enforces freedom.”
Having spent a few hours interviewing Freedom's creator, and people who use it, I think this analysis is a bit overdrawn and under-illuminating. However, as Nick Carr has shown, it's possible to write an entire book in which you take high-tech marketing seriously (Does IT Matter? is best read as a response to an Oracle sales rep's sales pitch), so fair play to Roiphe for keeping it to a couple paragraphs.
But things get interesting when Roiphe mobilizes her own rhetorical resources in the last couple paragraphs of the essay.
In fact the nostalgia for quiet, the elegant pieces extolling a lost peaceful world are a bit misleading. They suggest that if only we could turn off our devices, turn away, turn back to a little shack on a mountaintop, we could once again hear ourselves think. (Pico Iyer writes, for instance, “For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year—often for no longer than three days—to a Benedictine hermitage … I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness.”)
This sounds lovely, of course, but the truth is that our minds have changed. We don’t use the Internet; it uses us. It takes our empty lives, our fruit fly attention spans, and uses them for its infinite glittering preoccupations. Solutions like Freedom or a couple of days at a Benedictine monastery can’t remake us into peaceful, moderate, contented inhabitants of the room we are in. If you ask any 60-year-old what life was like before the Internet they will likely say they “don’t remember.” How can they not remember the vast bulk of their adult life? The advent of our online lives is so transforming, so absorbing, so passionate that daily life beforehand is literally unimaginable. We can’t even envision freedom, in other words, the best we can hope for is Freedom.
Our minds have changed? The Internet uses us? Life before the Internet is "literally unimaginable?" This is like a petting zoo of every smart-sounding-but-actually-stupid thing people say about the Web: technological determinism, the special brand of technical fatalism masquerading as insider knowledge, an offhand invocation of brain changes, a declaration that the Internet breaks human history into Before and After.
None of this is true. None of it.
I'll grant that arguments along the lines of "Freedom is no longer available, we no longer have the ability to make choices about how and where we direct our attention, and our minds are no longer our own," have a compellingly dystopian and wonderful self-fulfilling quality. But that doesn't meant that they're correct. It may be the case that our options are constrained by systems, that Facebook and Google struggle mightily to set our default preferences in life to settings that advantage them, and that in our everyday lives we often wonder how spouses or parents got along without cellphones.
But there's nothing that says we have to treat technologies or ourselves this way; that we have to think of ourselves as being used by the Internet; or that we cannot remember what life was like before the TCP/IP protocol stack. The Web is not a boot stamping on a human brain, forever.
We still have choices, even if Facebook and Twitter (and in her own way, Katie Roiphe) all argue that we don't, that we should just be happy and hit Refresh.
Okay, back to real writing.