They Can't Take Our Freedom

As I write this, the only sound I hear is that of my fingers making chewy clicks on the keyboard, the gentle ticking of a wall-mounted clock, and our barely perceptible “smart” bathroom fan, which has been tripped into action by me walking down the hall. A car passes the house occasionally, but there are no mowers or leaf-blowers polluting the quiet at 9 am this Thursday.

The noise in my head – that’s different, and harder to escape. The noise of life comes at us unceasingly. And as technology seemingly makes everything possible, we are faced with the burden of figuring out how to enslave it,rather than be enslaved by it. For everything technology makes possible (e.g. surreptitiously snapping a pic of someone’s poor garment choice and hilarious muffin-top and sending it to all your friends), it also makes something else impossible (going to the store in tight-waisted cutoffs and not getting ridiculed for it). With power (that to photograph and disemminate anything and everything) we must pair restraint (so we don’t use it for rank meanness).

For me, the biggest challenge is how to reach into the infinite, churning world of cyberspace whenever I need something from it, and how to pretend it doesn’t exist when I don’t. From 1-2 am, I want to be able to read about what a bunch of gear nerds love and hate about their lockblade knives, but from1-2 pm I don’t want to be bothered about anything at all. Being in touch with the world makes so much possible, but it has also blurred the line between work and leisure to the degree that we are never truly away from our jobs.

It's been said that email quashed the tyranny of the phone call by allowing me to contact you on my time, and you to get back to me on your time – there was no need for me to “catch” you at the right time, and no need for you to stay at your desk to be caught. However, it seems that it we have come full-circle: If we don’t get an instantaneous response via text or email, we then attempt the same communication via email or text, and only then do we call, and only after we have exhausted every channel of communication do we resign ourselves to actually waiting for a response. I can’t tell you how many times I have woken up to find an email, text, and voice message from my boss, which seems like overkill since the content of the message is usually something like “Where is this bottle of wine that we need tomorrow?” And more than half the time, the last message is “Never mind – found it.”

I have tried running from these distractions. If I were a painter, I could retreat to a primitive studio, but it just so happens that my laptop, the tool of my work, is also a font of distraction. I have considered getting rid of internet at the house and keeping a list of online tasks to be performed at the coffee shop a half-mile away, but for that we would have to give up our beloved streaming TV services. I have experimented with unplugging our modem during times of focus, which worked well until I got an iPhone, a machine completely nonplussed by terrestrial disconnection. I thought about stashing that in the garage while I work, and it was right about then that I thought this battle was getting a little ridiculous.

I could, of course, just sit there and resist the urge to use the blazing internet connection, and reduce my computer to an ancient Underwood by sheer force of will. But willpower is something of which we have finite stores, and I need mine for other things. Plus, discipline is overrated; there’s a reason that sober rock stars don’t test theirs in hotel suites with overflowing minibars; they have that “convenience” cleared out well before they arrive.

My most valuable tool against my own addictions is an app called Freedom, which I have on my laptop and iPhone. Freedom’s whole râison d’être is blocking the flow of information to and from your device, so you can buckle down and actually get some work done. When the Freedom session is done, the floodgates open up and you can watch videos of dogs and soldier/companions reuniting to your heart’s delight.

Has it really come to this? We spend all this money to integrate the internet into our lives, just to spend even more money to banish it? The answer, quite simply, is yes.

I don’t remember where I heard of Freedom, but I bought it about a year ago, along with its companion app, Anti-Social. If Freedom is the “cold turkey” app, then Anti-Social is the equivalent of cutting back to a few smokes a week. It blocks any sites you want to block – Facebook and Twitter are pre-loaded, of course - because they are ruining your life. I use Anti-Social when I have some work to do that requires internet access, but it’s an app that severely underestimates my time-wasting acumen. I can’t enumerate every site that I blow time on, and I definitely don’t need Facebook and Twitter to waste three hours online; I could do that with the neglected site of a local yokel fish-wrap.

I had a minor billing issue when I first bought Freedom and Anti-Social, so I emailed them about it. I got an email back from Fred Stutzman, Ph.D, whose signature identified him as the founder and CEO of 80 Pct. Solutions, the company that produced the apps. This wasn’t Steve Jobs slumming it with the hoi polloi by answering a random query or two – I was dealing with a scrappy startup.

And as I was taking a break from writing this post, I got an email from Fred encouraging me to upgrade to their premium service – which I had already done, of course, and which seemed like a good thing to mention to Fred before asking him to answer a few questions for the blog.

Piss & Vinegar: I was surprised the first time I got in touch with 80 Percent Solutions and got an email back from its founder. What’s the size of your operation? 

Fred Stutzman: Right now there's three of us - we'll, three and a half.  We're a very small team and we all do customer service!

PV: What inspired you to create Freedom and Anti-Social? Was it a need that you saw developing as you witnessed technology’s effects on others, or was it a result of your own struggle against distraction?

FS: I was a graduate student studying social media (believe it or not).  And because I was studying social media - I could justify being on social media.  Which was not great for getting work done.  So I would go to this coffee shop that didn't have wi-fi.  One day, one of the neighboring businesses opened up a free wi-fi network and my productivity system started to fail.  So that is what led to writing the first version of Freedom!

PV: Only when I see the great power of focused work am I reminded how distracted I am most days. Do you think the average person realizes how distracted he is by technology and the internet?

FS: I do think people get the general concept that they are distracted by the internet, but if they knew just how negatively those distractions impacted their work, they would be much more interested.  There have been numerous studies that show a simple digital distraction like an email can bring you off task - and it takes 10 minutes to get back on.  Now think about all the devices, notifications, is hard to find a minute where some ping or notification isn't going off.  These are truly harmful for focused productivity.

PV: The current version of Freedom operates across devices, which eliminates the temptation to just circumvent Freedom with a smartphone. How long has this version been available? 

FS: That version is still in beta - we're aiming for a full release in September 2015.  That said, we've been testing it since March 2015, and it has been in development since July 2014.  it is a big product - and there's much more to come!

PV: Is Freedom now available only on a cross-platform subscription basis, or can it still be purchased for one device?

FS: For the time being you can still purchase our legacy software - but eventually we'll go towards our service (which will include one device free!).

PV: It’s one thing to be lauded by (I cringe at the term) life-hackers, but your product seems to be essential to the processes of some very accomplished artists and writers. Is there any one user whose work you take special pride in facilitating?

FS: Absolutely.  The greatest thing about what we do is finding out our products have helped people - thousands of them - achieve their goals.  I am proud of all of these - I couldn't pick.  My favorite story is a writer who put a $30 check in the mail to me to thank me for helping her get her first book out.

PV: How do you, as a user fending off distraction, interact with Freedom day in and day out?

FS: I run product development, and testing!  So I'm always using the new Freedom!  It is great for fending off the reflexive Twitter check.

Work that is frighteningly good is in all of us, and it’s a shame that we so rarely put ourselves in the position to do it. Emails arrive in my box with that submarine sound, and there’s no telling which one is going to torpedo my creative work for the day. Sure, they’ve got to be dealt with, but work can come later. Right now, I’m working.

When I told Fred the name of my blog, he told me they were up to their necks in piss and vinegar over at Freedom HQ. That seems to be, figuratively at least, true. Somewhere in Durham, NC, there are three and a half guys working to make your work better. Sure, I bet they want to get rich, and I hope they do. Regardless of motive, these guys are on your side. Buy their app, and help them help you get away from what you think you need to do – right now – and do what you really want to do.


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