Productivity in the Age of Social Media: Freedom and Anti-Social

Fred Stutzman

The story I like to tell about Freedom involves a coffee shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This coffee shop, in my estimation, had two great qualities. First, the beans were world-class, and second, the place lacked a Wi-Fi connection. The laptop warrior, multitasking and nursing refills to protect power outlets and desk space, had become such a fixity in coffee shop culture that it felt radically different to be in a place without Wi-Fi. This is not to say that people were not on laptops in this shop, but that it felt different. There was more conversation, more reading, more presence. Rather than being deeply immersed in a world with digital others, patrons were forced to be aware of each other, the physical space and the shared environment.

Then, as the story goes, everything changed. A neighbor of this coffee shop opened up a Wi-Fi access point. Patrons who had enjoyed writing productively, away from distraction, found themselves tempted by the siren call of the active Wi-Fi signal. Laptops that had previously been left at home were brought in to the shop. Squatters hoarded the few electrical outlets. Tables, around which patrons once rotated frequently, were now claimed for hours on end.

Like most origin stories, there is plenty of embellishment in my telling. Sure, things did change in the coffee shop, but I am certain my story is rife with both overstatement and misattribution. Nevertheless, it was this episode that prompted discussions with my friends Sarita Yardi and Jacob Kramer-Duffield. As connectivity increased and devices became smaller, we wondered, how would we ever be able to get away from the persistent hum of Internet connection? These conversations led to my creation of Freedom, a little piece of software that provides “freedom” from the  Internet by locking you offline.

Finding Freedom

For society to value a strange little piece of software like Freedom, it must fit into a larger narrative. The challenge of this chapter is to disentangle the narrative, and to explore what the popularity of this software says about us. Before I begin this endeavor, though, I will properly introduce Freedom.

Initially designed in 2008, and written for the Mac, Freedom is a small application that locks one’s computer offline. Freedom is simple: one starts up Freedom, tells Freedom how long it should run (up to eight hours) and enters a password. Once Freedom is running, all network adapters (wireless, ethernet) are disabled. The adapters remain locked-out for any period of time specified. The only way to get back online while Freedom is running is to reboot the computer, a generally bothersome task. According to Freedom’s fans, this nominal restriction is effective, allowing for lengthy periods of “freedom” from the Internet.

In 2010, I developed a Windows version of Freedom and a companion application called Anti-Social. Like Freedom, Anti-Social restricts access to the net, but only selectively, blocking “social” sites such as Facebook, Twitter and (over 100 sites in total). According to my survey of Freedom and Anti-Social purchasers, the software is popular among students, accounting for 36% of the purchases, and educators, accounting for another 18%. It also popular among professional writers and editors. The software seems to be equally popular among males and females, and across income ranges. Freedom’s partisans seem to be unified in that their work tends involves large, individually-focused complex tasks, and they spend a lot of time on the computer.

Freedom’s Narrative

As I previously suggested, software like Freedom and Anti-Social can only be valued when they exist in a larger, social narrative. The Social Web, with its rich articulation of connections between people and products, its ever-present hum of activity and its constant participatory obligation, seems to create the perfect location for this narrative.

Analysts of the Social Web are keenly interested in its impact on culture. Henry Jenkins, a prominent scholar of the rhetoric of popular culture, argues that the Social Web enables “participatory culture,” where meaning is co-constructed between people, products, and organizations. The sociologist Manuel Castells, visionary scholar of networks, identifies the globalizing aspects of hyper-connection, leading to both the creation of “Internet culture” and changing local cultures. In the Social Web, we see these ideas made real and we sense the powerful effect on both local and global cultures.

We are drawn to the Social Web for its strong participatory ideals and obligations, its powerful informational uses, and its ability to construct cultures that do not singularly depend on place. But, as the narrative goes, time spent on the Social Web is frivolous, it is for those with time to waste, it is inauthentic when compared to “real-world” encounters. This narrative has been consistently applied to social technologies: the telegraph (e.g., Standage), the telephone (Fischer; Marvin), the mobile telephone (Ling; Ito et al.). Be that as it may, the narrative urges us to look at the Social Web as snacking: we should refrain from overdoing it.

While it is this simplistic narrative that allows Freedom to enter the collective imagination, the goal of this chapter is to challenge this thinking. I do not deny that the Social Web is a time suck, I do not deny that I have personally wasted hours on social websites when important projects loomed; not denying these facts is much like not denying humanity. Rather, I seek to identify problems with the narrative, problems that have implications for digital media and learning. Particularly, I wish to address problems with devices of work, and the validity of singular focus.

Problems with Devices

It is not controversial to claim that the dominant ideology of computing in the modern era has been “bigger, better, faster.” In fact, this ideology—the connection between technological progress and advancement as a civilization—has provided structure for the way we think about ourselves and other societies for hundreds of years. In the epilogue to his book Machines as the Measures of Men, Michael Adas writes:

The long-standing assumption that technological innovation was essential to progressive social development came to be viewed in terms of a necessary association between mechanization and modernity. As Richard Wilson has argued, in American thinking, the “machine and all of its manifestations—as an object, a process, and ultimately a symbol—became the fundamental fact of modernism. (410)

Adas illustrates the point that modernity, and the logic of modernity, are tightly coupled with scientific and technological advancement. This ideology is particularly pervasive in the computing industry. Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues in A Social History of Technology that, since the early days of computing, the industry has been driven to squeeze productivity out of machines and operators. This logic of practice was inscribed to the industry “because the government [the dominant early contractor of the computing industry], fighting the protracted cold war with the Soviet Union, believed that it would need better and better computation facilities” (297). The arms race to improve computational efficiency, gravely important in light of the cold war, provided the computing industry with singular benchmarks and goals that were purely empirical, rewarding advancement in processing, storage, and retrieval.

The constant drive towards efficiency that characterized modern computing has many rewards: transistors are orders of magnitude cheaper than ones produced just years prior Terabyte disks that sit on desktops, and devices such as the iPhone and iPad that inspire child-like wonderment. If the industry were not oriented functionally around constant improvement, our lives would be very different. This brings me to the statement of the problem: I believe that the drive towards the bigger, better and faster has left us with devices that are out-of-sync with our work patterns. In essence, the social narrative that validates Freedom is partially a red herring, a diversion from the true problems of distraction in today’s computing environments.

Over the past five or ten years, the devices we use for work have exploded in complexity. No longer a word processor or spreadsheet, our computers are now televisions, game machines, and—most importantly—portals to an always-on channel of social exchange. Yet because these changes have been realized in code as opposed to form, we think of the device as static. A computer is just a computer. I see our work devices increasingly failing the market, with disastrous consequences for productivity, progress, and self-worth.

The Social Web is part of the problem. Hulu and YouTube is part of the problem. Email is part of the problem. IM and Skype are part of the problem. Etsy is part of the problem. Twitter is part of the problem. But what, exactly, is this problem? Productivity in the digital age enforces a prerequisite of connectivity. We must be connected to research, consult, contact advisors, share work samples, promote ourselves, manage our personal brands, and respond to others at a moment’s notice. I believe that productivity, under such conditions, is challenging or impossible. We simply cannot descend into the states of concentration necessary to complete long form tasks, with knowledge that endless social opportunity and obligation awaits. The Social Web calls us because the Social Web is made of those we care about, or want to care about, or wish we did not care about.

Freedom has been described as an antidote to the Social Web, a description I publicly contest. Problematizing the Social Web inherently problematizes social relations. If Freedom is the antidote for anything, it is the antidote for machines that have gone out of sync with basic human work practices. Why have computers not kept pace with the time, adapting to the challenges of work in an environment rife with constant social hum? When we consider work and education in the digital age, it is critical to reflect on the fit between our devices and our tasks. Against logic, we may find that the best, newest devices are not a good fit.

Tasks in the Digital Age

To address the growing divergence between our devices and work practices, we have constructed and attempted to empiricize the concept of multi-tasking. The concept that individuals could work simultaneously on many tasks, aided by computational support systems, is an essentially modern idea. In it, we see the logic of computational efficiency assigned to the body, as if our biological systems were simply parts to be upgraded. Of course, multitasking has proven largely to be a myth. We are not better at tasks when we take on more. The work of Cliff Nass and colleagues (2009) shows us that multi-tasking, in fact, has decreasing marginal effectiveness as task complexity increases. Multi-tasking most fails those who most need it.

Flipping through the last ten years of proceedings from ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) “Human-Computer Interaction” conferences, we see a fantastic array of systems built to support multi-tasking, facilitate remote work, prostheticize our beings. In these technologies, we see the march towards progress, towards efficiency: bigger, better, faster. As we consider work products and processes in the digital age, we should turn a critical gaze to the set of values that creates this dominant logic. What can we learn from moving in the opposite direction, slowing down, limiting the tasks at hand, embracing the monotask?

The reader may have noticed the fundamental contradiction in my argument about Freedom. A technology that increases productivity, Freedom follows the dominant logic of the computing industry: technology should increase efficiency. The difference, I will argue, is that Freedom and Anti-Social are imbued with a different set of values, ones worth considering in the age of digital media. If the dominant value set of the computing industry is bigger, better, faster, Freedom appropriates the different (and slightly less catchy) value set: smaller, better, slower. By slowing down, and constraining our focus on a single or limited set of tasks, we can produce better work. By breaking and hacking our machines, by leaving the constant hum of the Social Web for a few hours, we can find clear minds and harness wonderful computational technologies as tools: tools that we control, not the other way around.

Only through extensive use have I realized that Freedom is about pushing back at the device itself, a device that has failed the work market in a drive toward progress. To come to terms with this uncomfortable lack of sync between our devices and work patterns, first, we must understand that we, humans, are not the problem. Second, we must reconsider our relationships to our devices and, with open minds, examine where our devices have failed us. Third and finally, we must change the ideology of the productivity industry, moving away from bigger, better and faster and towards smaller, better, and slower.

Works Consulted

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Cowan, Ruth S. Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Ito, Mizuko, Okabe, Daisuke, and Misa Matsuda. Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

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