Earlier this season, Anna Maria Tremonti looked at whether technology can come to the rescue and save us from technology, because there is a new generation of technology pioneers working to put us back in control of our own time and attention. Anna Maria’s first guest was Fred Stutzman, the CEO of Freedom, an app designed to keep its users off the internet. Here’s the conversation.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: So, people essentially will pay you to block them from their own technology which they’re also paying for?
FRED STUTZMAN: [laughs] That’s right. It sounds silly but it is the truth. People will pay to block themselves off of the things that distract them so that they can focus and get their work done. It’s something that they value.
AMT: What do they do? They block themselves off for a pre-determined length of time?
FRED STUTZMAN: That’s right, yes. We make products that work across desktop, tablets, phones, that allow them to voluntarily say this is the time that I want to be offline or away from the apps that distract me and you know, you can do it either by setting a period of time or a schedule so you can do it every morning, something like that.
FRED STUTZMAN: Exactly. It’s reducing the interruptions but also reducing the temptation to be pulled in those directions.
AMT: Who uses the Freedom app?
FRED STUTZMAN: It’s mostly people who understand the value of their time, so it’s professionals, it’s writers, it’s creative, it’s people who need to focus to get their work done. A lot of remote workers, people who work from home, people who may not have the environmental reinforcements to keep them on task, they’re the big users of Freedom.
AMT: What, in your own experience, led you to develop the idea of an app that blocks certain technologies?
FRED STUTZMAN: I was studying social media, Spending a lot of time on social media and needed to get my dissertation done, so I ended up using Freedom pretty extensively and really saw that the quality of my work improved. When you don’t have all these things competing for your attention, it’s just a very different way of working and one that I think we’ve almost forgotten. When you’re able to enter that mode of single focus of mono-tasking, it’s just this very powerful state for people.
AMT: How serious are people’s problems with attention, or focus, or managing their time then if it’s necessary?
FRED STUTZMAN: When you go to work on your computer or you pick up your tablet to get some things done, I kind of liken it to trying to get work done on your television. So there are all these technologies that are co-located inside the device that are designed to distract you. I mean that’s the reason Facebook, Twitter, they are great services, but they want your attention so they’re competing for your attention and it’s up to us, basically pure self-regulation, to find a way and strategies to deal with that. I think it’s a huge problem. I think it’s one that is if we resort to pure willpower, it’s quite challenging and so there’s a real interesting area for where technology can come in and solve that problem, so that’s where we are.
AMT: When it comes to the way we live with our devices it is not solely wearable inventions such as Google glass that can make us seem like cyborgs. The smartphone has become such a ubiquitous accessory that my next guest says we are all essentially proto-cyborgs today. But again, he does say there’s reason to be optimistic. The Google glass, as you might say, is half full. As long as we can assure that our devices are actually working for us and not the other way around. Peter Reiner is a professor at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia and he joins us from Vancouver, hello.
PETER REINER: Good morning.
AMT: In what sense are we already cyborgs?
PETER REINER: Well, the notion of a cyborg is really just a marriage of biology and technology and we have so intimately integrated our smartphones and, actually the entire universe of devices on which we interact on a day to day basis, that they have become part of what we call our extended mind. If you were at dinner yesterday evening with a group of friends and people started talking about some movies and let’s say the movie Amelie came up and people were talking about how wonderful it was, and then somebody says well, what was the name of that actress and nobody at the table is a movie buff and so nobody remembers, how likely do you think it is that the very next words out of somebody’s mouth would be, well I’ll just Google that? And what’s so remarkable about that little story is how unremarkable it is; that it has become a seamless part of the way that we navigate the world today; that we rely on these information appliances that are always at our fingertips to extend our minds in ways that really never happened before.
AMT: So if you look at the ways we use digital technology today, are we actually headed toward improving our lives or is it the opposite?
PETER REINER: Well, we’re doing both at the same time and it’s hard to know on balance which direction it’s going. We do have certainly some metrics. Recently there was a paper that came out from the Federal Reserve, of all places, which looks at the economy and what they noticed was that the productivity of workers was rising for quite a number of years and with the introduction of computers, it continued to rise until social media showed up on the scene, and it has been flat. Since social media became so popular, they attribute it directly to the use of social media by people and its effect on their working environment and its effect on their attention span. We need a real solution because it’s affecting us in important ways.