The definition of freedom has been under dispute as long as words have been symbolic. Either freedom is defined as the existential right to do as you wish or the ability to act as you should within reasonable restraints. Hedonists, anarchists, French post-modern philosophers, and eighteen-year-olds leaving their parents’ home tend to champion the first definition. Most others hold the second—though in many cases unknowingly. This silent majority stops at red, goes at green. Yet they don’t feel oppressed by those restrictions, for they know that by them they are given freedom to drive a car without fear of collision at intersections. Further, they value restaurant chefs who submit to regulations on hand-washing and glove-wearing. They ascribe to the time honored principle that anarchists make dangerous cooks. It is a simple vetted fact that humans tend to function more efficiently when placed under certain basic restrictions. Author Os Guinness puts it this way, “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like; it’s the power to do what you ought.”
Yet one area of modern life ignores this definition of freedom—technology, more specifically, mobile device technology. Each year another five or six features are added to smart phones, from flashlights to fingerprint detectors, making it easier to do more with a smaller machine. This appears time-saving and efficient—very American, in fact. In the old days one had to go to the library for books, gossip with the neighbors for local news, and pound the typewriter for a story or letter. Now all that and more can be done with a few taps and a couple swipes. But has efficiency really increased? Yes, the old days were bothersome, even cumbersome, but there were benefits. Your library book never doubled as a gaming device. Your typewriter never notified you that a distant acquaintance was in a new relationship and thirteen of your friends liked it. In short, when you sat down to read, you read; when you sat down to write, you wrote, for that was the only function of the object or machine on the desk in front of you. We continue expanding the capabilities of our phones and tablets, but is it possible that those capabilities are the very things limiting our productivity? It brings to mind something Thoreau said while considering the burgeoning technology of the telegraph in the nineteenth century:
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Now, with a dash of discipline, distractions should not be a problem. A person may choose to ignore news alerts, e-mail notifications, friend requests and weather updates while they read Dante on their iPad, just like someone can choose to do their sleeping in an arcade. But neither environment seems ideal for the task at hand. Why? Because distractions cause delays. It could be said that reading on an iPad gives too much freedom to choose not to read. All those features become unwanted temptations when one simple task is the goal. In many cases, the myriad capabilities of mobile computers, tablets and phones cripple rather than empower their users, because those capabilities become diversions from real work—“They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
Most of us have been maddened at having spent fifteen minutes on social media or mindless web browsing after solemnly resolving to get to work on some project. It is not that we wish to waste time, but those fifteen minutes seem magically outside the power of our will. The option for browsing or e-socializing was there, so we—somehow—just did it. Every time we sit down at a computer or pull out a smart phone we are faced with a choice of how to use those machines, and not a simple choice. It may be between a game that we want to play and a project we should begin or a movie that would be amusing and a lecture that would be informative. Choosing between the good and the entertaining is no easy task.
Maybe our basic paradigm should shift from expanding technological options to limiting them, at least in certain cases. Doctor Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine recently conducted a study on the effects of removing e-mail in a workplace as an option-limiting measure and demonstrated, “without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus.” The study goes on to conclude, “there are benefits to not being continually connected by email.” Dr. Mark added in a personal interview on the subject, “Never before have we been able to have so many choices to access people and information faster . . . It's not just the fact that we have access to technology options but that the options lead us to serious distractions” Solution oriented thinking would conclude, if extra functions are distracting from meaningful activity on our phones, tablets and laptops, the best way restore that activity would be to limit the option of accessing those features. Buy a simpler device or limit a current device. Much like turning off your work phone while on vacation or staying away from all-you-can-eat buffets while on a diet. It is giving your will a rest and ensuring you will use your time as you plan on using it.
But the benefits of option limitation are not limited to productivity. Paul Miller, a writer for The Verge recently spent a year off from the internet. One major question he had had to deal with from readers during his experiment was in regards to his pornography use while web-free: “How did do get it?” they asked. His answer is simple, and intriguing:
“The basic, circuitous answer to that loaded question is: I don't . . . Nope, I'm porn-free and I love it. After years of wanting so badly to stop, a quick rip of an ethernet plug was all it took.”
His solution for eliminating his pornography usage seems inanely simple, and yet has proved most effective. He found freedom by limiting his options.
Time is a limited and immeasurably precious resource, and our ability to use that time well will determine our productivity and societal usefulness. Productivity has little to do with the capability of the device, and everything to do with the discipline of the device’s user. The less disciplined the user, the more they will be distracted by multifunction devices. The more disciplined the user, the less need there will be to limit choice. As our phones, tablets and laptops shrink in size and bloat in capabilities, they demand more willpower of their users. Means have definitely improved but what about the ends? If they are to be protected, it will require a mature understanding of freedom and a willingness to limit technological options.
In other words, buy a typewriter and a kindle.
R. Eric Tippin
In Semi-Sovereign State of Kansas
Guinness on the topic, "A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future," at Socrates in the City, NY, September 13, 2012.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, chapter 1, p. 67 (1966). Originally published in 1854.
 “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email, May, 2012 http://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf
 Personal Interview, January 30, 2013 by R. Eric Tippin
 “Offline: How do You Look at Porn.” Miller, Paul. December 3, 2012 http://www.theverge.com/2012/12/3/3721904/offline-how-do-you-look-at-porn