The Elusive Promise of the Freedom App

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Jan. 3 2012 11:35 AM

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.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

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.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
The Eye
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM How Designers Use Creative Briefs to Better Their Work
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.