Every writer needs the freedom to be creative and the self-control to stick with a project until completion, but Smith has something rather more 21st century in mind: Freedom © and SelfControl© are computer applications that can be downloaded and configured to increase productivity by blocking access to the internet.
These two pieces of software originated in quite different places. Freedom was developed by Fred Stutzman, visiting assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science, and counts Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Naomi Klein among its users. Stutzman has also released Anti-Social, which blocks the social-media elements of the internet. SelfControl, meanwhile, was created in 2009 by American artist Steve Lambert, one of the people behind The New York Times Special Edition – a hoax copy of the paper published in November 2008.
It seems that Smith, Hornby, Eggers and the rest have taken to heart a comment made in 2010 by Jonathan Franzen, who famously wrote portions of The Corrections wearing a blindfold and earplugs to reduce disruptions: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Clearly the distractions of YouTube cat videos, unsolicited tweets and the ping of an email arriving in your inbox are not conducive to writing an intricately structured 100,000-word novel.
Eight out of 10 people in Britain now have access to the internet and Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2012, published in July, found that internet users in the UK now spend on average 24.6 hours per month online – more than double the amount of time spent online in January 2004. Meanwhile, internet access in the British workplace increased by 27 per cent between 2004 and 2008, from the equivalent of 5.9 million employees to 7.5 million, according to the Office for National Statistics.
As we immerse ourselves in the internet more and more, how we balance its distractions with its benefits will become increasingly important. So just how widespread is the use of tools such as Freedom and SelfControl among novelists trying to carve out the space in which to think and write, and what does it say about our ability to concentrate in the digital age?
Ned Beauman, whose second novel, The Teleportation Accident, has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, uses the internet for reference. “It’s inextricably part of my method,” he explains, citing , Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia as regular online haunts. “I don’t consider Wikipedia a distraction; I find it really useful. Most of the time you’re learning something.”
Born in 1985, Beauman is a digital native – he has spent the entirety of his adult life surrounded by digital technology. Yet despite being immersed in the internet from an early age, Beauman is not immune to its power to distract, and he employs a level of computing trickery that makes Zadie Smith look like a Luddite.
“There are five layers of technological solutions I use,” he explains. “I edit my host file to block some websites, but that’s too coarse grain. I use K9, which is a parental control application, to block certain pages within websites, and I use an ad-blocker, not to block adverts, but to block the comment sections of many sites. And when I’m working I use Nanny for Google Chrome and SelfControl to block certain websites.”
The sites he blocks that cause so much distraction? “Virtually all newspaper and magazine websites as well as blogs and Twitter. And,” he says with amusing candour, “I also block things relating to my career that it’s probably best not to look at.”
When I explain the techniques used by Smith, Beauman and others to Will Self, whose new novel Umbrella is also longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, he is appalled. “Get a grip, Zadie! I’m sorry, but that is just pathetic. Turn off the computer. Write by hand. I find that ludicrous.”
Self, who was born in 1961 and describes himself as a “digital immigrant”, writes the first draft of his novels on an old typewriter and has done so ever since around 2002-2003 when broadband became widespread. “I think I felt oppressed by the distractions of digital media and longed for a certain level of clarity and simplicity that the typewriter afforded,” he says. “The internet is of no relevance at all to the business of writing fiction directly, which is about expressing certain kinds of verities that are only found through observation and introspection. It’s an incredibly powerful tool and you’d be stupid not to use it, but it’s a distraction in the actual business of writing.”
Yet the internet is not just a distraction – it’s actually changing our brains, too. In his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (2010), Nicholas Carr highlighted the shift that is occurring from the calm, focused “linear mind” of the past to one that demands information in “short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better”.
“For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a populist pursuit,” he writes, “the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.”
Our working lives are ever more dominated by computer screens, and thanks to the demanding, fragmentary and distracting nature of the internet, we are finding it harder to both focus at work and switch off afterwards.
“How can people not think this is changing your brain?” asks the neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. “How can you seriously think that people who work like this are the same as people 20 or 30 years ago? Whether it’s better or worse is another issue, but clearly there is a sea change going on and one that we need to think about and evaluate.”
“We know that all brains in the animal kingdom adapt to their environments,” says Greenfield, “but human brains do it superlatively. It follows that if you put the brain in an unprecedented environment it will follow its evolutionary mandate and adapt. I’m a baby boomer, not part of the digital-native generation, and even I find it harder to read a full news story now. These are trends that I find concerning.”
As a former addict, Will Self is acutely aware of the internet’s potential power to lure users into cul-de-sacs of distraction. “It fulfils the criteria of addiction, which is obsessive mental content connected to compulsive action,” he says. “The machine itself seems like a paradigm of the addictive state. I can see it as something that needs to be put down the way an alcoholic puts down drink.”
It is perhaps pertinent that the distracting and addictive nature of the internet makes an appearance in Zadie Smith’s novel itself. Natalie, a successful lawyer, struggles with a secret addiction to an internet message board for people looking for casual sex.
“The worst thing for human beings,” says Greenfield, “is not getting attention. Studies have shown that the worst thing about low-paid jobs – beyond the low pay – is the lack of attention. We all like being acknowledged. Emails and messages reinforce that you’re worth contacting.” The little dopamine hit your body releases every time an email arrives in your inbox or someone tweets at you overwhelms the less immediately gratifying pleasure to be found in long, unbroken periods of thought and introspection, and we become hooked on distractions.
It’s little wonder, then, that a job as solitary and mentally demanding as writing could easily give way to the addictive and reassuring experience of engaging with comment boards, Twitter, Facebook or those YouTube cat videos. And with shortening attention spans, putting in the hours of uninterrupted thought that go into creating a novel becomes harder.
“I hate the internet, and as I get older I want less of it in my life,” says Ned Beauman. “It’s good in egalitarian terms that all that information is on the internet for free, but the internet is definitely pandering to our worst instincts.”
Downloading Freedom and SelfControl may help, but they’re no substitute for having the real thing already embedded in the way we think and work from an early age.
As Greenfield points out: “If someone with as highly creative, original and robust a brain as Zadie Smith needs these tools, what hope is there for a 15 year-old?”