What ‘Freewrite: The World’s First Smart Typewriter’ Says About Our Tech Addiction

It’s official: society has become so obsessed with digital media that the only way to undo years of scattered thinking is for technology to go back to basics entirely – at least that’s what the folks over at Freewrite would have us believe. Marketed as “your distraction-free writing tool,” this reimagined typewriter has been met with more than a little confusion and contempt from both writing and tech communities in its first year (and it’s not very hard to see why).

Image courtesy of Flavorwire.

Essentially, Freewrite is a four-pound, battery-powered word processor that allows a writer to type away with peace of mind that the siren songs of search engines, Internet videos or other computer distractions won’t break their focus. It does share a similar design to a typewriter, but the sleek, modern aesthetics make Freewrite look more like a distant cyborg relative than a direct descendent. It’s equipped with a traditional computer keyboard as opposed to vintage keycaps and a small screen for viewing your work. Freewrite can also save documents to Google Drive, Evernote and Dropbox when connected to WIFI.

 Image courtesy of GadgetFlow.

Our first reaction to this product might be that it’s nothing more than a terrible idea born from the unoriginal recesses of empty-headed entrepreneurs. Our second might be to try to discern some underlying satire behind its existence; maybe it’s so ridiculous that it can only be an Internet prank or shrewd commentary on society? Or better yet, maybe the point is that it’s boring and meant to encourage digital detoxes, hence the slogan.     

But what it really boils down in my opinion is not the invention itself, but rather why people thought that it would sell at all. What audience is this “distraction-free writing tool” targeted for anyways? Well, that’s easy – adults who come in contact with screens multiple times a day; in other words, all of us.

Have you ever heard someone who is very organized playfully refer to themselves as “O.C.D.”? Or maybe someone who gets distracted easily self-diagnose themselves as “A.D.D.”?  Many Americans like to casually blame poor concentration on mental health, but the truth is there’s a very big difference between everyday discomfort and the actual hardships a medically diagnosed person with a “common” mental illness – like suicidal depression, social anxiety, O.C.D. and A.D.D. – face every day.


Image courtesy of The Digital Reader.

So if we can’t blame our lack of focus on genetics or chemical imbalances, what’s left? The answer lies in how much time we spend switching between screens and the way media are presented to us as multi-tasking tools. It’s safe to say that most day-to-day technologies are actually made up of dozens of little inventions all conveniently rolled into one glossy package. For instance, a phone hasn’t been just a phone in over 15 years. The same goes for cars, computers, televisions, gaming systems and so much more – they’re all designed to serve infinite functions. And not only are technologies expected have several uses, but it’s become impossible to not utilize most of them in our everyday lives at school, work, home, traveling and just about anywhere. I honestly couldn’t tell you how to read a map because I’ve become solely dependent on my smartphone’s GPS tracker for all my navigational needs. So is it really our fault if the world we live in has become so digitally reliant that we can’t help but lean on a few hi-tech crutches just to get by?

Don’t get me wrong, in many ways the rapid progression of technology over the last 50 years has issued forth some of the greatest discoveries and intellectual thinking of all time. However, it’s just as important to note what we’re gaining as well as what we’re losing by devoting so much of our livelihoods to technology. Deterioration in social, communication and critical thinking skills automatically come to mind in addition to our ability to focus on one constant for hours at a time.

To put it into perspective just how badly technology may have corrupted these skills in adults, I’d like to point to a recent Washington Post article about a 4-year old girl from Gainesville, Ga. who has already read over 1,000 books in her lifetime. Now before the skeptics out there draw any hasty conclusions about her idly skimming picture books with her mother, the article clarifies that Daliyah read her first book on her own at 2 years and 11 months and has since been able to read her 10 and 12 year-old siblings’ chapter books and even one college-level book. Daliyah’s advanced reading skills even went so far as to impress the 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who invited Daliyah to shadow her as “librarian for a day” at the Library of Congress a.k.a. the largest library in the world.

Image courtesy of Newsela.

But even if Daliyah were only leafing through hundreds of ordinary picture books, that level of concentration for hours at a time is still an amazing feat. Due to the monstrous exposure to technology and digital entertainment we usually digest by adulthood, it often takes the average adult longer to read a book because focusing on print or digital text for longer than a few minutes takes genuine effort. By comparison, it’s likely that Daliyah has had little to no experience with digital entertainment like IPads, TV or phones, and that media starvation might just play a major role in her ability to comb through hundreds of books at a steady rate before Kindergarten.

Overall, the argument behind why a strange and seemingly idiotic product like Freewrite could appeal to a digitally engrossed audience makes some sense. By cutting down on time spent on the internet, we probably can get more work done by concentrating harder on one task at time. Nevertheless, this $500 “smart typewriter” is still pointless because there are plenty of cheaper and easier alternatives for restricting internet access, like writing by hand or recording your thoughts out loud into a voice recorder. For those who still want a tech-savvy solution, there are several apps like Cold Turkey and SelfControl designed to limit social media and internet usage for the sole purpose of increasing focus and productivity.

We all know that trends have a way of recycling through history, but that theory doesn’t usually apply to technology. So, is it smart to rely on retro machinery for combatting present-day media overconsumption? Or is moving forward our best bet for preventing a gradual descent into virtual incoherence? Freewrite may seem like a not-so-useful answer to those questions, but at least it’s an attempt. You can choose for yourself.