The New “Freedom”

By Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Claremont, CA.   Becka flew into my office, so excited that she was out of breath. “Professor,” she asked, “have you heard about freedom?”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Why yes, Becka,” I replied. “As a political scientist, I have heard about freedom.”

Now Becka started laughing. “No, no, no,” she said. “I mean something else. Not freedom. I mean freedom.”

This who’s-on-first routine went back and forth for a minute, until Becka explained that the Freedom she was talking about is a computer program. If you own a Mac, you can download this program for free. And then Freedom, upon your instruction, will render your computer – and you – unable to access the Internet for a specified period of time.  It is a program you access through the Internet to make it more difficult for you to access programs through the Inetnet.

As Christopher Borelli at the Chicago Tribune put it: “Yes, it has come to this.”

So, as Becka explained, when she really needs to get a paper done, she uses Freedom to disable her Internet functions for at least an hour, leaving her to focus on her work. Although it is possible to override Freedom – you have to turn off your computer and restart it – Becka said that she wouldn’t do that because of “the shame” she would feel.

I wondered aloud if there weren’t a kind of shame-feeling that might accompany needing to use Freedom in the first place. “Oh, yes,” Becka said, with a big smile on her face. “I admit that I have a problem.”

Did I mention that Becka is totally endearing?

Freedom is starting to get some coverage – see here, here, and here – and I imagine it will get some more. I also imagine that much of that coverage will continue to focus on the most obvious questions raised by the program’s existence: questions of autonomy, self-control, free will, and so on. What does it say about us that we need this kind of program? Is there something about the omnipresence of the Internet that makes us less capable of exercising internal restraint? And so on. Those are important questions.

In the spirit of Front Porch Republic, I want to try to get at those questions by thinking about Freedom in terms of place. For me, the existence of Freedom proves what a confused thing place is in contemporary America.

For many of us, computers are an integral part of work. These days, desk jobs are computer jobs. Computers are a fixed part of the professional landscape.  (I have to confess that only an hour ago, I almost threw a fit when my husband and I couldn’t find a computer on the fourth floor of the college library. “How do they expect me to work?” I grumbled.) Today, basic computer fluency is a requirement for most jobs. When I think of my office, I think of looking at my computer. Computers are the places where much of our work happens.

At the same time, because of the Internet, the computers where we work are where we do lots of other things as well. They are the places where many Americans do the contemporary approximation of hanging out: writing e-mail, chatting, instant messaging, scoping out Facebook profiles, and so on. Computers are places for socializing, for relaxing, and even for imagining and fantasizing. (Yes, I’m thinking about online porn. That was the most decorous way I could think to say it.)

I have always taken seriously the old rule of thumb that, to the extent possible, you want the place where you work to be separate from the place where you sleep. (Don’t just take my word for it.) It’s that much harder to relax when your deadlines and obligations are literally looming nearby.

Now that the Internet is what it is, computers make that rule almost impossible to follow in daily life. Every computer is a place that can be a work place and a play place. That makes computers very confused places. Computers are sites of incongruity, opposition, and ambiguity.

And as interior designers intone almost every hour on HGTV, confused places – places that are cluttered or serve contradictory purposes – inevitably confuse the people who inhabit them.  Places that are confused make people frenetic, puzzled, and overwhelmed. Cluttered places create more clutter, inside and out.

Especially in my students, I see how hard it is for contemporary Americans to focus on working or writing for long blocks of time. The temptation to make a couple of clicks and check e-mail, or do some instant messaging, or shop for shoes, is constantly weighing on them. My own students are young people – I love my students! hi, students! – who on the whole do not lack for self-control. In the extensive sorting and testing and judging process that now comprises American education, they have excelled. They have excelled in this system thanks to some luck, of course, but also thanks to the habit of making good choices and exercising some degree of self-restraint.

But they – and we – simply inhabit a world which makes self-control a constant challenge. Every second, at a computer, you can choose do to something else. And every second, you can actualize that choice. You have to be choosing every moment.

One of the things that a good place can do is signal to us, somewhere in our minds, that there is a particular purpose at hand (and that it is appropriate to temporarily put other concerns aside). A church, as a place, signals that it is time for prayer and reflection — and not a time for buying a new shower curtain. A restaurant signals that it is time to eat — and not a time to find out what your ex-boyfriend looks like these days.  Good places, in other words, can help focus us on a task and give us a sense of order in the moment.

But when you look at a computer, you are inhabiting a place which does not give you any kind of calming or orienting signal. You are inhabiting a place where anything is possible. You might even call it “utopic” in Thomas More’s wry sense: a seemingly good or perfect place which is really no place at all. Computers displace us. They displace us physically – they enable us to talk to anyone, anywhere, and so forth – but they also displace us emotionally and intellectually. They confuse and distract us.

So I’m glad that Freedom exists, even if I’m not glad that it has to exist. In a circumstance that conspires to disorient us at every moment, Freedom is a kind of compass, enabling us to help ourselves get to the places where we want to go. After all, when you try to go all directions at once, you end up not going anywhere at all.

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