Technology: How writers block fatal distractions

Whether it's Zadie Smith using web-stopping software or Jonathan Franzen gluing up his Ethernet port, authors are going to extremes to avoid the lure of the internet

Rhodri Marsden
Thursday 06 September 2012 23:58
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Writer Zadie Smith said this week that she used software that blocks the internet. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen physically blocks his internet access
Writer Zadie Smith said this week that she used software that blocks the internet. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen physically blocks his internet access

It's one of the great drawbacks of modern technology: the machines many of us use for work also have the capacity to entertain us. While cash registers don't yet come with a joystick, and miners' helmets can't project episodes of South Park on to the nearest wall, computers – and particularly the internet – conspire to derail the working days of millions.

This week, Zadie Smith has given heartfelt public thanks – via the acknowledgements – to two pieces of software that have helped her to complete her latest novel, NW: the first, Freedom, blocks website access for specific periods of time and can only be reset by rebooting the machine. The second, SelfControl, is a more brutally effective whip-cracker, not even allowing you the reboot option. Many will wonder what happened to good old-fashioned willpower, but procrastination has always been a problem for writers; Victor Hugo, for example, is said to have written naked and had someone hide his clothes so he was unable to leave the building. But the internet is deepening that masochistic streak that compels us to defer important tasks, regardless of the consequences. It's what psychologists call hyperbolic discounting; we're seduced by short-term fun while long-term goals are conveniently forgotten. Would you rather creosote a fence, or go to a party? Watch the original 1972 version of Solaris, or a video of a South Korean popstar pretending to ride a horse? Write a 100,000 word novel, or indulge in inconsequential online chat about apple crumble?

Anyone who answers "inconsequential chat, please" might do well do investigate anti-procrastination software, which comes in many different guises these days. Apps such as Affirmations (iOS) and Stop Procrastination (Android) offer some form of hypnotherapy; others, such as writtenkitten.net, reward you – in this particular case powering you through each 100-word burst of creativity with the promise of a picture of a fluffy kitty. Some punish you; Write Or Die's "Kamikaze Mode" begins deleting words if you're not writing fast enough. Audio signals can be effective; you could set up your computer to emit a "clang" every 15 minutes to remind you that time is passing, but apps like Alarms (blog.mediaatelier.com/alarms) and Pomodorable allow you the flexibility to set up a regime of "productive procrastination". Of course, most of these can be easily overridden if we become frustrated – and that's where tools such as Temptation Blocker come into their own, forcing us to type an unmemorable 32-character password in order to reach the digital treats we desire.

It's unlikely that the predicament of Smith and her fellow authors (such as Jonathan Franzen, who took action in a similar, if less hi-tech, way than Smith to keep himself writing rather than mucking about – as he told Time magazine, "what you have to do," explained Franzen, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it") will elicit much sympathy. After all, writers might produce 2,000 words a day, but they probably type at 35 words per minute, leaving seven hours of staring, bored, into the middle distance. However, as comedy writer Graham Linehan said in interview recently, "being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored." Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to postpone.

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