The desk where I work is not the sort of desk at which important negotiations are conducted. This is fortunate, because if I had to project an impression of strength and confidence, I probably couldn’t keep an item on the tabletop that says, “I have no control over my impulses.” The Kitchen Safe looks like high-tech Tupperware. You put something inside, set the timer for somewhere between one minute and ten days, and press the button on the lid. The Kitchen Safe gives you five seconds to change your mind and then locks, after which there’s no way to open it until the timer runs out. The exemplary inmates of the Kitchen Safe are the snacks you don’t want to gorge yourself on, but the manufacturers also suggest that you might use it for cigarettes, alcohol, credit cards, video-games controllers, and so forth. I use mine for my phone, because it’s the only way I can get any writing done.
For a long time, I held out against getting a smart phone for exactly this reason. Blocking the Internet on a computer is easy enough. In the acknowledgements for her novel NW, Zadie Smith thanked programs called Freedom and Self Control “for creating the time.” I use Self Control too, but it’s only one rampart in a complex set of fortifications. Computers use something called a Hosts File to navigate the Web, and I’ve edited mine to proscribe about 150 newspapers, magazines and blogs that I regard as interesting but unnecessary. (Any website on this list should be flattered; if it weren’t engaging enough that I might be tempted to while away some time on it every morning, I wouldn’t bother to block it.) I also use AdBlock to blank out the comments sections from the few websites I do allow myself to read, Nanny For Google Chrome to prevent myself from googling my own name, and K9 Web Protection to prevent myself from checking the Amazon pages of my own books. “My suspicion is that almost all writers, young and old, now perform Google and Twitter searches for references to themselves several times a day,” the novelist Kevin Barry has written. I did for a long time. But then I got clean.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much software like this for smartphones. It would be impossible to install on the iPhone for technical reasons relating to Apple’s bossiness and, on Android, the few existing apps are apparently not very reliable. It doesn’t matter how comprehensively you’ve restricted the Internet on a computer if you can still get to it through the eager little device at your elbow.
If laziness and procrastination are two masked thugs attempting to plunder your time from the vault of your self-discipline, the best response belongs to the frightened bank manager in just about every heist film ever made: “The vault is on a timer—even I can’t open it.” Once that image came to mind, I didn’t even have to wonder whether anyone had invented a personal time-lock safe. I knew that they would have, because the wonderful and terrible thing about the Internet is that someone else has always had your idea already—in this case, three Bay Area entrepreneurs who launched the Kitchen Safe on Kickstarter last year.
Many people react with chortling condescension to the idea that you might need technology to save yourself from technology. “Haven’t you ever heard of willpower?” they ask. I feel pretty confident in saying that none of these people has ever tried to write a book. When you are one year into a project that may last two years or more, working completely alone day after day, with no colleagues, no deadlines, and no goals except the ones you have set yourself, willpower just isn’t enough. But it’s not only writers who could benefit from Self Control and the Kitchen Safe. Virtually every human being I know wastes at least a small part of each day reading “interesting” things on the Web that they won’t remember ten minutes later. It is baffling that Internet discipline, as a mode of self-care, still isn’t as prominent in our culture as exercise and diet and “mindfulness” and all the rest of our vigilant egotisms.
I’ve only ever heard about one other person using my method, and it happens to be the writer Evgeny Morozov, one of the most prominent skeptics about the omnibenevolence of the Internet. “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself,” Morozov told the Guardian. “I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done.” Morozov is quite right. Using a safe protects you not just from the occasional distraction of checking your phone; it protects you from the constant distraction of wanting to check your phone and scolding yourself not to. Morozov also locks his screwdriver in the safe so that he can’t disassemble the safe to get to his devices. This seems a bit extreme to me, but I’ll withhold judgement. We Kitchen Safe users must stick together, because society doesn’t understand us.
For the poem to survive in this environment, does it have to be shouty and provide an instant sort of frisson? Does anything less than the immediately shocking or charming get attention? We read with an itchy mouse finger, ready to scurry on.
Memory is not a simple record of events but a dynamic process that always transforms what it dredges up from its depths. The conversation has become my way to instigate such a process.