A few years ago, for reasons I'd like to expand upon but they're insufficiently related to technology, I spent a sleepless night in a hotel in Grimsby. My room was situated on the side of the building that offered maximum exposure to the clanging of the bell of the local church; this provided me with a regular reminder of how late it was getting and how little I was sleeping. While lying there, I pondered how this was identical (although infinitely more irritating) to the system I had set up on my computer: a clang, set up to sound every 15 minutes, to remind me that I should be working and to provide a metaphorical slap around the head if I happened to be wasting time on the internet. (Which is often the case.) But these days, this system no longer works; the clang became a background noise that was incredibly easy to ignore – and boy, did I ignore it. Until recently I've spurned any time-wasting antidotes that intervene more brutally, such as Temptation Blocker, which stops specific applications from launching unless you type an infuriating 32-character password. But now I needed the digital equivalent of the strict schoolteacher to keep me in line.
"Every good writer I know," said Jonathan Franzen not so long ago, "needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the internet brings is lots of vulgar data... It leaves nothing to the imagination." It's obviously not just writers who could do with the break, but a piece of software that tackles this problem has been championed by the likes of Naomi Klein and Nick Hornby. In fact, it shares the title of Franzen's latest novel: Freedom. It has no bells and whistles; simply launch the application, tell it how many minutes you want to work for uninterrupted, and it blocks your internet connection for that period of time.
"Why not just pull out the cable," I can hear you cry. Well, because it takes only a couple of seconds to plug a cable back in, and Freedom requires you to perform a laborious restart to break its spell. "Then get a grip and use some will power," I can hear my dad snap. To which I can only say: "I'm sorry, I'm a fallible human being with a capacity for distraction - as many of us are in front of a computer."
If you use cloud services such as Google Docs to do your work, Freedom is useless, but otherwise, it's very useful. Nota bene: if you find yourself using the internet on your phone after blocking it on your computer, you're probably beyond help.
Social-media connections I've made during the past week include three with people by the names of Foz Fez, ChesSHa Cat and SPiced hAM. They either have exceptionally cruel parents or, more likely, they've gone pseudonymous in order to give themselves a bit of privacy. But the new service they've signed up to, Google+, has come out fighting against this practice. A spokesbod said last week: "We are working with people to change their profiles to include their real name"; what this actually means is telling people with adopted names like "Opensource Obscure" that they've violated community standards and ordering them to shape up.
Many are angry about this. There are many reasons why you wouldn't want to use your real name online, and many people steer clear of Facebook – which also insists on this – for precisely that reason. You might be a woman, keen on avoiding a depressing stream of lecherous messages. You might be a political dissident, or just someone who doesn't want themselves smeared across cyberspace, ripe for discovery via a simple web search. Google's core business, of course, is information; using a false name doesn't add any value to their data mountain, so it's unsurprising that they'd try to stop you doing so (if they ever found you out, which is by no means guaranteed). What's less clear is why I can't let Google know that I'm Rhodri Marsden, hide that fact from the rest of the internet, and style myself as Needles McGinty instead. Good name, Needles.