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A person reads in the Vancouver Public Library, not realizing she is failing to be distracted. (Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail)
A person reads in the Vancouver Public Library, not realizing she is failing to be distracted. (Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: On Culture

How 'freedom' of information keeps us in chains Add to ...

I often think how much more quickly academic research can be done now, without lengthy trips to libraries and riffling through card catalogues (with cards, paper cards!) and waiting your turn in line at the circulation desk with your coat on. Time is freedom, and the work, I think, must be enhanced by all the new free time students must have.

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Except, as it turns out, this freedom actually takes your time away. Anyone who has sat down to write a difficult letter or report at a computer connected to the Internet knows this.

Now you can download a program that prevents your computer from accessing the Internet for up to eight hours at a time. You use it to avoid distraction when you are trying to complete some kind of work. The program costs $10 and is called, in what must be a purely ironic spirit, Freedom.

It is amusing that, in a time when Internet providers are falling over themselves to charge us more for our 24-hour access to all the knowledge in the world, we now also have to pay to protect ourselves from this privilege. It makes sense: I often have to walk many blocks to find a cafe to work in that doesn’t have free wireless Internet. Even in a working-class neighbourhood, the non-Internet coffee shop is becoming extinct. I wouldn’t be surprised if hipsters started trying to preserve them or lionize them, as they would old barbershops.

And why do I have to run from my own house, a place where I pay a not-insubstantial monthly fee to ensure that every room and nook, even the basement, is suffused with the invisible flow of new music and baby videos and live trial blogs and new brain studies and naked ladies and gossip and theories and manifestos? I can’t imagine living without this; I need it as I need air, and feel keenly deprived when I travel and find myself without it even for an hour (although that too is an increasingly rare experience). I need all this stuff and it paralyzes me completely: I can’t write a single paragraph without checking e-mail twice and beginning to read a lengthy article on the Peloponnesian War or the Bay City Rollers.

I have tried Freedom, the program, and find it useless: All it takes to circumvent it is rebooting your computer, which I will do without any resistance at the first hesitation. (Looking at things online is what I do when I can’t think of how to phrase something or what it is that I really mean or I decide that the whole essay/story/novel is obviously without focus and unoriginal, and should be abandoned, which happens about every three words.) I know people who try to discipline themselves using a system called the Pomodoro Technique, which involves using a kitchen timer to measure strict 25-minute work sessions, with enforced breaks between them. Sounds good, but I know if I had the Internet I would just be measuring 25-minute browsing sessions.

So I end up exiled not just from my comfortable house but from the pleasant cafés too – I end up at Tim Hortons with headphones on, and even there I am resisting the urge to ask someone about available networks.

In a bar the other night, a friend couldn’t remember the name of a new prescription drug he wanted to tell me about. In a second he had tapped a couple of words into his phone and found not only its generic name but all the trade names used in every country of the world, plus a diagram of its molecular structure. The diagram we hadn’t asked for, and couldn’t interpret, yet could not prevent from appearing in the massive unfiltered information dump that now occurs – for the simple reason that it can – every time a single piece of information is sought. Yes, this access is freedom, but my inability to focus is an unfreedom.

It’s funny: Although I probably was impatient standing in those library lines or in the dimness of the stacks, I don’t remember any irritation or boredom. I have actually never felt so unrushed as I did there. I was not yet aware that I should have been looking for distraction.

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