Can We Really Unplug?

The illusion of Internet freedom.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

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. It somehow brings to mind the Ionesco play, Rhinoceros, where one by one the townspeople turn into rhinoceroses.

I don’t in any way question why anyone would want Freedom. The addictive, mindless thrill of the Internet is clear: Why work when you can go on email or check the weather? We are, in Eliot’s words, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” With this program, the longest you can be barred from the Internet is eight hours, so the particular freedom it is offering is not crazy or excessive. You do not, in the reassuring world of Freedom, spend, say, an entire day offline.

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.”

Here a shadowy war is evoked. The inventor of the service, Fred Stutzman, told a New York Times reporter, “We’re moving toward this era where we’ll never be able to escape from the cloud. I realized the only way to fight back was at an individual, personal level.” This sweet looking, bearded, former information and library science graduate student, whose picture of himself on his website has him carrying a baby in a Baby Björn, is using the language of battle. The question is who we are fighting if not ourselves?  

Freedom from distraction may in fact be the new, sought after bourgeois luxury. In his most emailed essay in the New York Times this weekend, “The Joy of Quiet,” Pico Iyer says that the future of travel lies in “black hole resorts” where you pay exorbitant amounts for remote beautiful rooms that are offline. The principle is that freedom from the Internet is so rare and exotic and impossible that it is becoming a commodity: It’s not iPhones or iPads we have to worry about buying, but peace from them. Freedom, then, is a poor man’s fabulous hotel room on a cliff on a beach without wireless.

What is particularly confusing about the popularity of Freedom is the simplicity of overriding it. After you have set your computer for your two hours or 60 or 10 minutes of Internetless life, all you have to do is turn your computer off and then back on to disable it. This seems like a fairly small hurdle to me; its freedom so tiny and modest, its “enforcement” less leather whip than soft feather. Why would we need such a simple, almost negligible deterrent? But people claim that it works. The website offers evidence that the following writers use it: Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Nora Ephron, so its gentle, even fictional deterrence is not just effective, it’s fashionable.

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.