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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Can We Achieve 'Freedom' from Our iPhones?

A chat with the creator of “Freedom,” software that shuts off your Internet connection, about why we can’t have similar software for iOS.

  • December 8, 2011

Fred Stutzman is the creator of Freedom, an application that shuts off your connection to the Internet for a pre-determined amount of time. Without this program, I probably would not have completed graduate school; I would certainly be a much less productive writer. I use it almost daily–sometimes for hours at a time, sometimes just for a few minutes to help get me over a hump of Internet-related distraction.

And yet as more and more people do the bulk of their computing on their mobile devices, applications like Freedom cannot be run on the iPhone or iPad. I sent some questions to Stutzman about what it would take to bring productivity software like his to mobile devices.

TR: I often tell friends that Freedom is the most important application on my computer. Why did you create Freedom (and Anti-Social)?

Fred Stutzman: Simple answer: I created these apps so I could finish my dissertation (which I did!). But what led to the creation of Freedom was frustration with my devices: why were they distracting me when I wanted to work? When people ask these questions, the conventional wisdom is that a lack of self-discipline explains procrastination. There’s certainly some truth to that, but as a researcher and designer, my goal is to build better systems in spite of our failings.

Thinking about how I was distracted, I quickly realized that the “hum” of the social web was a constant distraction. Facebook and Twitter are a constant source of unmet obligations (comments you should respond to, baby pictures you should be liking); throw in media and gaming sites, game over. Through a brute-force hack, Freedom turns your computer from being a source of distraction to a device of work. And this is what Freedom (and Anti-Social) pushes back on: our devices must effectively support all aspects of our work practices.

I’m frustrated that I can’t use Freedom on my iPhone. (The nearest thing is Airplane Mode, which doesn’t quite do the trick.) Why can’t I?

The operating systems that power our personal computers and mobile phones are quite different. Freedom doesn’t work on iOS because 1) there’s no way for a user space application to execute low-level controls (disabling transmitters, filtering content) and 2) apps that operate like Freedom are not permitted in the Apple store. So the answer is a mixture of technology and policy, but the main challenge is technological, in the ways the OS and its security models are different. If Apple changes this, I would certainly develop this software.

Do others clamor for such an application to run on their mobile devices, or am I the only weird one?

Yes. I get enough requests every week that I’m thinking of making an FAQ item. Considering where we are going with mobile devices, and the role they will play in our everyday computing, it is a shame that we can’t exert this sort of mediated control over the device.

Would Freedom or an application like it be possible on less “walled garden”-style devices? On Android devices, for instance? On jailbroken or hacked ones?

I’m not a mobile developer, so I can’t say for sure. My sense is that the userspace security models are conceptually similar between iOS and Android devices. I guess my answer would be, if I can compile the OS, I could likely enable some sort of Freedom functionality.

It seems rather presumptuous of our technology overlords to give us devices that are increasingly powerful—and yet lack the ability to be customized for our own use. How can users protest this? Do you think Apple, Amazon, and others will come around to this way of thinking soon?

This is a question near and dear to my heart, because there is no way that I would be in technology if I hadn’t been able to hack and look inside machines. I defer a big part of my answer to Jonathan Zittrain, who has been addressing this paradox in his work. I think the big trend we will see in the next few years is vendors treating devices as locked-in channels, so no, I don’t think this way of thinking will change soon.

As an educator, I am less pessimistic. There are so many languages, frameworks, and cheap devices; the enterprising programmer coming up today has so many technical options. At the same time, the internet is an amazing support community for young programmers. I am in many ways more excited about the peer-to-peer learning opportunities afforded by technology than classroom instruction.

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