I’m not wishing the Internet away. It has become so integral to my work — to my life — that I honestly can’t recall what I did without it. But it has allowed us to reflexively indulge every passing interest, to expect answers to every fleeting question, to believe that if we search long enough, surf a little further, we can hit the dry land of knowing “everything that happens” and that such knowledge is both possible and desirable. In the end, though, there is just more sea, and as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones.

Not long ago, I started an experiment in self-binding: intentionally creating an obstacle to behavior I was helpless to control, much the way Ulysses lashed himself to his ship’s mast to avoid succumbing to the Sirens’ song. In my case, though, the irresistible temptation was the Internet. But before I began, I wondered about the genesis of the term “self-binding.” So I hopped online and found Jon Elster, a professor of political science at Columbia University, whose book “Ulysses Unbound” explores whether voluntarily restricting your choices enhances or curtails freedom.

That reminded me: I hadn’t read “The Odyssey” since college, and because I was pretty sure that my copy was at the bottom of a carton of books in faraway Minneapolis, I Googled the original text. I browsed several versions before downloading what seemed like the best translation. Because my interest lay specifically with the Sirens (quick Web break to make sure that should be uppercase), I sifted through a variety of classicists’ interpretations of their role. Then — and this seemed reasonable enough — I searched for the “Sirens” episode in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” I can’t quite recollect how I got to the video for the song “Sirens,” by the alternative rock group AVA, but that put me in mind of Blink-182 (with whom AVA shares a frontman), so I clicked over to that band’s site to check for any updates on the release of its new album, then watched its reunion performance from February’s Grammy Awards. . . . When I looked up, three and a half hours had passed.

And that is why I need the mast. It came in the form of an app called Freedom, which blocks your Internet access for up to eight hours at a stretch. The only way to get back online is to reboot your computer, which — though not as foolproof as, say, removing the modem entirely and overnighting it to yourself (another strategy I’ve contemplated) — is cumbersome and humiliating enough to be an effective deterrent. The program was developed by Fred Stutzman, a graduate student in information and library science, whose own failsafe self-binding technique — writing at a cafe without Internet access — came undone when the place went wireless. “We’re moving toward this era where we’ll never be able to escape from the cloud,” he told me. “I realized the only way to fight back was at an individual, personal level.”

Freedom, which runs only on Macs, is downloaded more than 4,000 times a month. Stutzman says this mass-erosion of our self-control was inevitable, as the instrument of our productivity merged with that of our distraction: since computers have expanded from mere business tools to full-service entertainment centers. But I think there’s something deeper going on as well. Those mythical bird-women (look it up) didn’t seduce with beauty or carnality — not with petty diversions — but with the promise of unending knowledge. “Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens,” they crooned to passing ships, vowing that any sailor who heeded their voices would emerge a “wiser man.” That is precisely the draw of the Internet.

It is heartening that the yearning for learning is the most powerful of all human cravings (though it applies equally to obtaining the wisdom of Zeus or the YouTube video on how to peel a banana like a monkey). Yet the sea surrounding the Sirens was littered with corpses. Can increased knowledge really destroy us?

Well, yes. According to Elster, there are certainly occasions when choosing ignorance could be smart. You might decline, for instance, to undergo testing for the genetic marker for Huntington’s disease, which is fatal and incurable. Or say you were an East German after reunification: would you want to read files that may show that your spouse had informed against you? As a culture, we have banned research on reproductive cloning, fearing how future generations might use the results.

In my slightly less agonizing situation, the trap is more of a bait and switch: the promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information, and the two are hardly the same. In that sense, Homer may have been the original neuropsychologist: centuries after his death, brain studies show that true learning is largely an unconscious process. If we’re inundated with data, our brains’ synthesizing functions are overwhelmed by the effort to keep up. And the original purpose — deeper knowledge of a subject — is lost, as surely as the corpses surrounding Sirenum scopuli.

It could be that sometimes our greatest freedom may be to choose freedom from freedom. I am still surprised by the relief that floods me whenever I bind myself from going online, when I have no option but to ignore the incessant tweets and e-mail messages and videos and news links and even the legitimate research.

I’m not wishing the Internet away. It has become so integral to my work — to my life — that I honestly can’t recall what I did without it. But it has allowed us to reflexively indulge every passing interest, to expect answers to every fleeting question, to believe that if we search long enough, surf a little further, we can hit the dry land of knowing “everything that happens” and that such knowledge is both possible and desirable. In the end, though, there is just more sea, and as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones.

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