Digital simplicity

thoreau_henry_david_WD
Hank says “Put the dang phone down!”

It’s not news that a lot of us have a complicated relationship with technology. Many of us feel like we spend more time on our phones–particularly social media–than we think, in our more reflective moments, is probably good for us. Phone addiction is now discussed as a serious issue, and the ubiquity of mobile phones has even been linked to a significant increase in mental health issues among the young. The ubiquity of mobile phones and the rise of social media seem to contribute to anxiety, isolation and depression, even while making utopian promises to “build community and bring the world closer together,” as Facebook’s mission statement has it.

I personally have wondered (but been afraid to find out) how much time I’ve spent on these services and what I could’ve done with that time instead. As often as not, social media is, for me anyway, a source of anxiety and irritation. I’ve sometimes thought of Twitter as “letting the world’s angriest people set your mental agenda for the day.”

And yet, it’s hard to stay away. In addition to social media providing a distraction from whatever else might be going on, there’s a vague, but ever-present sense that you might be missing something (however ill-defined that something is) if you aren’t logged on. And yet, at the same time, the world of social media has a tendency to encroach on other activities that we (theoretically at least) value more. Have I checked Twitter or Facebook while ostensibly playing with my kids or enjoying a long walk on the leafy streets of my neighborhood? Why, yes I have.

None of these observations are new or original, but they set the stage for a recent book that helped me crystallize some of the real problems with living this way and why and how to make a change.

In his newest book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown and author of several popular books, makes a compelling case for intentionally limiting your use of digital tools, particularly social media, whose entire business model rests on sucking up as much of your time as possible. He recommends a 30-day digital “declutter” where you eliminate, or significantly cut back your use of voluntary digital tools; then after the 30-day period you reintroduce only those that add significant value to your life.

Newport calls his philosophy “digital minimalism” because he thinks the value added to our lives from the time we invest in these services is likely, for most of us, to be a bad deal. Instead of mindlessly meandering about in these environments whenever we’re bored, we should decide what, if anything, we really want to use them for, and limit our time engaging with them to these purposes. He cites Henry David Thoreau’s advice to “simplify, simplify, simplify,” not for its own sake, but to make room for richer values and experiences.

The second half of Newport’s book makes the case for activities that we can make more room for if we spend less time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. These core activities–solitude, conversation, and high-quality leisure–are, Newport contends, essential to a flourishing human life.

  • Solitude means spending time alone with your own thoughts without the input of another mind. (So this excludes reading, listening to podcasts, etc.) Solitude in this sense is essential, Newport thinks, for processing our own thoughts, self-reflection, and turning over a particular problem. Taking long walks is an excellent opportunity for such solitude.
  • Conversation is defined in contrast to the fleeting “connections” we tend to make online–likes, retweets, comments. Newport says that humans are designed for a much higher “bandwidth” form of connection, as evidenced by the ways we, largely unconsciously, process the many non-verbal cues during face-to-face conversation. Online connections should largely be relegated to logistical purposes–to facilitate genuine conversation, whether in person or over the phone (or even an app like Facetime).
  • High-quality leisure includes the kinds of activities that we undertake for their own sake. Paradigm examples for Newport are fixing or building physical things, playing a musical instrument, engaging in “supercharged” forms of sociality like intense group workouts, and other “analog” activities that don’t involve simply flopping down in front of a screen.

Newport’s final chapter focuses on the “attention resistance”–a loose but growing movement of people who realize that, for social media companies and other producers of digital tools, we aren’t the customer, but the product (as the saying goes). The “attention economy” thrives when we spend as much time as possible on these platforms, and technology companies have incredibly smart engineers working to make their tools and apps as addictive as possible. The attention resistance is made of of people who take a more adversarial approach to these companies and seek to deprive them of their attention, except to the extent that they derive benefits from these tools.

While I found most of Newport’s argument persuasive, I did have a few disagreements. Despite quoting Aristotle on the value of leisure, Newport all but ignores Aristotle’s emphasis on contemplation as the highest goal of human life. Virtually all of the people Newport describes as exemplars of high-quality leisure are super high-activity types who are out clearing trees in the forest or learning how to weld as their preferred forms of “leisure.” I do agree that engaging with the physical world is an essential part of human life, virtually all of Newport’s examples still focus on a high-productivity “doing” rather than “being.” (I had a similar concern about his previous book Deep Work, which seemed at times to be mainly a manifesto for being more productive, rather than questioning the obsession with productivity.) One could argue, for instance, that the contemplation of nature has as much, or in some case more, value than putting the human stamp on it.

All that said, I found the core of Newport’s argument convincing: It is very hard to maintain that the amount of time many of us spend on social media is time well spent and that it wouldn’t be better put to use otherwise. If anything, he somewhat undersells the drawbacks of social media: particularly the dread, anxiety and malaise it can induce in many of us. I honestly can’t think of too many times I’ve come away from Twitter or Facebook feeling happier and more energized. And he seems right on about the shallow forms of affirmation we’ve come to rely on in our quest for more likes and clicks.

Moreover, though Newport is writing from a secular perspective, many of his insights would dovetail with religious wisdom, particularly on the importance of simplicity, solitude and engaging with other people and the created world without the mediation of a glowing screen. At the same time, religious wisdom could also correct Newport’s tendency to value production over contemplation. In any event, Newport convinced me to attempt my own digital declutter: a Twitter hiatus and a significant cutback on my use of Facebook. Whether I’ll be able to put these services in their proper place in my life (if they have one!) after 30 days remains to be seen.

 

 

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