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Computer Program Wants to Free Scholars From Computer Distractions

In order to be free, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed, humans must sometimes surrender a measure of freedom.

Fred Stutzman, a Ph.D. student and teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, may not have had Rousseau in mind when he created the “Freedom” application. But he does believe that to escape the siren song of social media, scholars might need to freely impose restrictions on themselves. “When there’s wireless everywhere,” he told The Chronicle, “how do we really escape the Internet?”

Mr. Stutzman’s answer is to relinquish one’s right to surf the Web to the supervision of a sort of robotic schoolmarm. Freedom is a shareware application that users instruct to disable their computers’ network adapters for a fixed period of time, leaving them unable to browse the Internet for up to eight hours.

Mr. Stutzman created Freedom as a tool for researchers and writers such as himself who, like many Internet users, have become so restless that they must exile themselves from cyberspace in order to concentrate on their work. “As a doctoral student, it’s something that we’re all familiar with,” he said. “Anybody who needs to do long writing or Internet research … it’s hard to draw the line between work and time-wasting.”

He said he does not consider this a failure of willpower, but merely an effect of the overwhelming pace at which information technology has engulfed modern life. “We’re not ready to moderate our impulses completely,” he said. “Freedom is a brute force way” to keep people focused. “It’s taking control back from the computer.”

In case of emergency, users can override Freedom by rebooting. But Freedom operates on the assumption that the hassle of restarting the computer will squelch the fleeting impulses of the typical procrastinator.

Unlike the freedom referred to by certain bumper stickers, Freedom is free. However, Mr. Stutzman encourages those who download it to contribute toward the development of future versions of the product. He said he has received $300 in donations since he made the application available a year ago. —Steve Kolowich

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