Monday, July 20, 2020

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

(This is a longish review - feel free to skip to the bold parts to see the main outline) 

In this interesting and thought-provoking book, Newport makes a case for digital minimalism:
"A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."
Part 1 outlines the philosophical underpinnings of digital minimalism, argues why it’s the right solution, and what a digital declutter would look like.

He starts by considering the uneven playing field we are now on with technology, as tech companies use two forces to encourage behavioural addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
"We’ve been engaging in a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naïvely believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods."
He notes the issue is control:
"current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they’re useful. It’s instead about autonomy. We signed up for the services and bought these devices for minor reasons… And then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel and how we behave."
Digital minimalism is based on three core principles:
  1. Clutter is costly 
  2. Optimisation is important 
  3. Intentionality is satisfying 
His proposal is a digital declutter: a 30-day break from the optional technologies in your life, clarifying that it’s optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life. During that time, explore other pursuits and interests that you enjoy and find meaningful. At the end, you consider which technology to reintroduce, asking three questions as you do so:
  1. Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? 
  2. Then, is this technology the best way to support this value? 
  3. Then, how am I going to use this technology going forward to maximise its value and minimise its harm? 
(I am still in the middle of my 30 day break from Facebook and Instagram, and have thoroughly enjoyed it)

Part 2 provides a framework for adopting a sustainable digital minimalism lifestyle if you decide it’s right for you, with many practical suggestions. He has four particular practices you might consider:

1. Spending time alone. He notes that many operate in a state of solitude deprivation: where you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

In avoiding solitude, he observes “you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.”

Some practices he suggests here are leaving your phone at home (or at least tucked away and hard to get out), go for long walks (on your own, no music or headphones), and to write things down (journaling thoughts, etc).

2. Avoid all low quality communication, and instead prioritise actual conversation.

Suggestions here are: don’t click ‘like’ or make online comments ever, manage texting within set times, and set conversation hours. Here is where you start to think about the principles rather than the suggested practice. I couldn’t make a set time for conversation work - it doesn’t account for other people’s availability, but I already schedule phone calls with friends in advance via text. Or, I meet a friend for a walk, enabling purposeful time together. I don’t have text threads with no purpose, although with teenagers I can see how they might benefit from limiting texting to more purposeful conversation.

3. Reclaim leisure, being purposeful with how you spend your extra time. He has three ideas here:
  1. prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption 
  2. use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world 
  3. seek activities that require real world, structured, social interactions. (While he explored clubs and gyms, my mind naturally and immediately went to Christian communities) 
Suggestions include: fix or build something every week, schedule your low quality leisure, join something, make leisure plans for the week and the seasons.

4. Join the attention resistance. This is where he got more practical in taming tech use. Practical ideas included: deleting social media from your phone, reducing apps and websites (turning them off as standard), managing social media access with precision, embracing slow media (eg read the newspaper rather than nonstop headlines), and dumbing down your smartphone (or actually changing to a dumb phone).

With lots of these, I felt these options were simplified, so while a helpful starting point, there were numerous other ways you could make it work for you.

I have several reflections. 

There are helpful insights into what we have lost in the hours wasted with low value online experiences, whether its flicking through social media, scrolling news sites, binge watching Netflix, or texting in never ending but empty streams of conversations. Ironically, as he points out, no one who spends hours a day on Facebook would ever have the time to develop something like Facebook.

He’s identified a middle-class first-world problem: having enough free time to waste online. But even more than that, it seemed even more elite. How much of this is a problem for those who can afford iPhones, have time to spare and waste, have time and money when not online to devote to leisure pursuits, and who aren’t encumbered by the burden of long working hours and family life. We may bemoan the hours wasted online, but do we stop and give thanks to God that we have the time, money and privilege to have the option to do so (even if we need to reconsider how we use it)?

The author is a tenured college professor and it felt like it. That’s not to dismiss his wisdom, but to see it’s place. He uses the thinking of Thoreau, the practices of Benjamin Franklin and the choice of solitude by Abraham Lincoln as entry points to consider our practices today. Some suggestions reflected a lifestyle with great flexibility, and a fair amount of free time. He can go for long walks daily to encourage solitude, he can decide when he is available for conversations and limit himself to those hours, and can invest in leisure projects.

I assumed he must be single, because there was no consideration of what digital minimalism might look like in a family setting. No thoughts about how to consider these things with a partner or with children who are also navigating the online space, or making such decisions in a household with differing ideas and values in this area. Many recommendations struck me as suiting someone with few ties and much flexibility. (Yet the acknowledgements thank his wife and three children).

I found myself wondering, what does the digital minimalism look like for the Christian? I guess it depends on its purpose. If you step back from online pursuits to fill your life with woodwork and long walks, you are still not really fulfilling God’s call to love him and your neighbour (although you may be happier and less stressed). There could be great value in digital minimalism if you turn to further glorify God, to serve others, and to consider the state of your own heart. One risk of the clutter of a busy online life is we cannot focus on God and how he calls us to live. Newport does suggest that humans are made for more than this empty online life. I agree, we were made for so much more: a deep and abiding relationship with our creator and the people he has made. Any change to our digital lives that fosters that is well worth considering.

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