The Economist : Software To Save Your Brain From My Computer
Friday, June 11, 2010
“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. Keeping such diversions at bay involves some technological jiu-jitsu, using the power of one piece of software as a defence against distraction from others. Some programs fill the whole screen to keep disturbing alerts hidden; others disable specific websites, such as Facebook, or even cut off internet access altogether. The idea is similar to parental-control programs that prevent children from accessing inappropriate content: but these are controls that grown-up users deliberately impose upon themselves. The programs’ varied but allied intent is revealed in their names: Freedom, Isolator, LeechBlock, Menu Eclipse, Think and Turn Off the Lights, to name a few. And many other programs, including word-processing packages Ulysses, Scrivener, WriteRoom, Dark Room and Writespace, now include a full-screen, no-distraction mode, with all unnecessary screen “furniture” (menus, palettes and so on) disabled or hidden. This forces the user to confront the equivalent of the blank page in the typewriter—an exhilarating and terrifying prospect for many authors. For programs that lack a dedicated full-screen mode, two utilities, Isolator and Think, can create a similar form of focus, hiding or blurring anything but the active program.
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. Launch the $10 program and it asks you how long you would like to disable internet access for: you can specify anything from one minute to eight hours. A second screen asks if you would like local network access to printers and other computers, or none at all. The program requires that you enter your system password, and then neatly severs your information feed. The only way to regain network access before the allotted time has passed is to reboot the computer. (For those who need to access some websites in order to work, but want to block others, LeechBlock provides selective blocking, so that Facebook, say, can be accessed only at lunchtime.) Freedom’s author, Fred Stutzman, a graduate student in information science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the social demands of the internet led him to create the software. “Just being online means you have this continuous partial attention, or this sense that at any point in time, you can dip into the stream,” he says. Many people’s work requires them to collaborate with others online; but the very connectivity that makes such collaboration possible also offers unlimited scope for distraction. Mr Stutzman is a regular user of his own product. “I’m much more relaxed, and I get a lot more done,” he says. “I can use Freedom for a day and write 3,000 words.”
The term “continuous partial attention” was coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple executive who studies and writes about the cognitive deficits that computer-users experience. Most recently she has encountered a condition she calls “e-mail apnea”. Ms Stone defines this as literally holding one’s breath while reading e-mail instead of breathing normally. 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. People should rely on their feelings, rather than technology, to dictate what they can or cannot do, she says. 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. Freedom, however, has set him free, he says, for three reasons. First, “it’s hard to turn off.” Second, you can set it for a short duration at first, then longer; Mr Sagal likens this to the Alcoholics Anonymous “one day at a time” credo. Finally, he says, “it’s the name. They don’t call it Internet Off, they don’t call it Shut Down. They call it Freedom.” Mr Sagal wrote his play “Mile 22”, which was staged in April in Chicago, with help from Freedom. “I wouldn’t have finished it otherwise,” he says. 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.