what i'm reading: digital minimalism: choosing a focused life in a noisy world

Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is an essential book for our time. Newport argues -- quite persuasively -- that smartphones and their constant connection to social media are degrading our quality of life. He offers ample proof of this, and offers a plan that readers can use to break their smartphone and social media addictions.

Newport is not anti-technology. He's a professor of computer science and is not suggesting a return to pre-modern life. He acknowledges and enjoys the convenience that mobile phones and mobile computing have brought us.

His issue is strictly with the smartphone, which is purposely designed to foster dependence or addiction, and which now enables us to be connected to the chatter of social media at every waking moment.

Newport calls for us to be more intentional about how we use technology, to ensure we are cultivating rich lives offline, rather than let our digital lives swamp us. He simply wants us to make our own choices, instead of letting app designers make them for us. He writes:
One of the first things that became clear during this exploration is that our culture's relationship with these tools is complicated by the fact that they mix harm with benefits. Smartphones, ubiquitous wireless internet, digital platforms that connect billions of people—these are triumphant innovations! Few serious commentators think we'd be better off retreating to an earlier technological age. But at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they've become a slave to their devices. This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app's ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.
We didn't sign up for this

Much of Newport's argument is framed around the issue of autonomy. Most of us didn't see the vast technological change of the digital age until it was upon us.
These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade. We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn't, in other words, sign up for the digital world in which we're currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it. 
This nuance is often missed in our cultural conversation surrounding these tools. In my experience, when concerns about new technologies are publicly discussed, techno-apologists are quick to push back by turning the discussion to utility—providing case studies, for example, of a struggling artist finding an audience through social media, or WhatsApp connecting a deployed soldier with her family back home. They then conclude that it's incorrect to dismiss these technologies on the grounds that they're useless, a tactic that is usually sufficient to end the debate.
The techno-apologists are right in their claims, but they're also missing the point. The perceived utility of these tools is not the ground on which our growing wariness builds. If you ask the average social media user, for example, why they use Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, they can provide you with reasonable answers.
Each one of these services probably offers them something useful that would be hard to find elsewhere: the ability, for example, to keep up with baby pictures of a sibling's child, or to use a hashtag to monitor a grassroots movement.
The source of our unease is not evident in these thin-sliced case studies, but instead becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them. Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What's making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child's bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience.
We all know people who can't hold a face-to-face conversation without checking their phones, who interrupt conversations to answer texts or read out items from their feed, who seemingly cannot enjoy a moment without putting it on Facebook or Instagram. Most of us know people who are online almost every waking moment. Many people -- more than will ever admit it -- disappear into social media for large parts of their days. We also spend more time on social media than we realize.
NYU professor Adam Alter, whom I introduced earlier in this book, details a typical story of such underestimation in [his book] Irresistible. While researching his book, Alter decided to measure his own smartphone use. To do so, he downloaded an app called Moment, which tracks how often and how long you look at your screen each day. Before activating the app, Alter estimated that he probably checks his phone around ten times a day for a total of about an hour of screen time.
A month later, Moment provided Alter the truth: on average, he was picking up his phone forty times per day and spending around a total of three hours looking at his screen. Surprised, Alter contacted Kevin Holesh, the app developer behind Moment. As Holesh revealed, Alter is not an outlier. In fact, he's remarkably typical: the average Moment user spends right around three hours a day looking at their smart-phone screen, with only 12 percent spending less than an hour. The average Moment user picks up their phone thirty-nine times a day.
As Holesh reminds Alter, these numbers probably skew low, as the people who download an app like Moment are people who are already careful about their phone use. "There are millions of smartphone users who are oblivious or just don't care enough to track their usage," Alter concludes. "There's a reasonable chance they're spending even more than three hours on their phone each day."
We all have reasons that we use social media. Newport argues that although our reasons may be valid, and we do derive some value from social media use, the quality of our social media interactions is very low and adds little to our lives. When you drastically cut down your social media use, once you get accustomed to new habits, you may notice that you don't miss it. Whether you spend 20 minutes on Facebook or Instagram, or 40 minutes, or 60 minutes, you come away with the same low value. And for many people, those shallow, low-value interactions have gradually come to replace more meaningful interactions.

In a section about "solitude deprivation" -- the name describes the problem -- Newport writes:
A good way to investigate a behavior's effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995—the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity. As most parents or educators of this generation will attest, their device use is constant. (The term constant is not hyperbole: a 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers were consuming media—including text messaging and social networks—nine hours per day on average.) This group, therefore, can play the role of a cognitive canary in the coal mine. If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first.
And this is exactly what we find.
My first indication that this hyper-connected generation was suffering came a few years before I started writing this book. I was chatting with the head of mental health services at a well-known university where I had been invited to speak. This administrator told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. Until recently, the mental health center on campus had seen the same mix of teenage issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.
She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students' brain chemistry.
Of course, there may or may not be a connection between the sharp rise of anxiety in young people and smartphone use: a correlation does not indicate a causal relationship. But a correlation does mean it's worth thinking about and exploring. Because really, can spending nine hours a day connected to social media be healthy?

A potential solution: a values-based philosophy

In Newport's views, a few "life hacks" and a little willpower are inadequate tools to address this issue. He offers a program -- first, a foundation of values, then a set of principles derived from those values, then a collection of practices that rest on those principles, and finally, a three-step process to put the system into place. This is one thing I like and admire about Newport's work: it is values-based. I've come to learn that good leadership, good work -- indeed, a good life -- stems from choices that are grounded in our own values. 

I also like Newport's recognition that a one-size-fits-all plan is impossible. He acknowledges our individuality and our unique needs, writing more from the perspective of "here are some things that are working for some people, which you may want to try," rather than a rigid prescriptivism. This helped me think about the specifics of my own life, and how I might become more intentional in my time use.

One reason I enjoyed this book so much is that Newport's attitude aligns very nicely with my own. I have always been very protective of my time, very intentional about how I use it. As a young adult, I earned my income three different ways, while cultivating my fledgling writing career, being an activist, and having a social life, and a romantic life. I needed to be highly disciplined about how I used my time. Once I developed good practices, I learned to be less strict with myself, but I never stopped being very intentional in how I spend my time.

From the publisher:
Digital minimalists are all around us. They're the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They can get lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run. They can have fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. They stay informed about the news of the day, but don't feel overwhelmed by it. They don't experience "fear of missing out" because they already know which activities provide them with meaning and satisfaction.

Now, Newport gives us a name for this quiet movement, and makes a persuasive case for its urgency in our tech-saturated world. Common-sense tips like turning off notifications, or occasional rituals like observing a digital Sabbath, don't go far enough in helping us take back control of our technological lives, and attempts to unplug completely are complicated by the demands of family, friends, and work. What we need instead is a thoughtful method to decide what tools to use, for what purposes, and under what conditions.
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A few years ago, I wrote about The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. Wu traces the history of the "you are the product" business model, and ends with a impassioned argument against social media. Digital Minimalism is the perfect companion to The Attention Merchants

I highly recommend reading them both -- in succession, if possible. Wu's focus is on data mining: the massive corporate profits that are reaped through our personal information, along with our blithe disregard of the impacts of those transaction, the world it has created. Newport's focus is on the personal impacts, and how this trend has eroded and degraded our quality of life. 
Together, the two books build an extremely strong case against smartphones and social media.

Digital minimalism, personal edition

I notice that I ended my review of The Attention Merchants with this:

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back

Some of the changes I made did turn out be permanent (I said goodbye to Twitter), others did not (I re-installed the Facebook app on my phone). Now I'm assessing my current habits with Newport's advice in mind, and thinking about whether I want to go a few steps further.

My inability to concentrate has been, at times, a serious problem. In my late 30s, when I was first bringing my fibromyalgia under control, I learned that, on some days, it was best to stop trying. I'd go for a swim, make a cup of tea, and watch re-runs of "Xena: Warrior Princess". That was all my brain could handle. I seldom experience that severity any more, but I've learned to work in short bursts with frequent "micro breaks". 

This is why I came to social media relatively late, when most of my friends were already using it. I knew it would be a big time suck, a giant distraction. Believe it or not, when home internet was first introduced, I resisted signing up. I already felt so distracted and pulled in so many different directions -- and now the biggest distraction would be in the very place where I was trying to write. Having an offline place to write, separate from the connected computer, would have gone a long way.

I'm already practicing pieces of this philosophy

About than 10 years ago, I realized I wasn't reading as many books as I wanted, as I had done in the past. I was consuming a lot of information -- news stories, magazine features, blogs -- but I wasn't spending enough time with the purposeful, quiet reading that is a foundation of my enjoyment of life. No longer being able to read at night (because of fibro) had robbed me of my book-reading time, and I had gradually and unintentionally replaced that with reading online.

I wanted to read more books. To that end, I made two changes. I decided to consume less news, and to set aside time to read during the day. 

I immediately felt positive benefits. I felt happier! I felt calmer! I felt more like myself. I have continued that practice ever since. I am less informed on day-to-day happenings, but I don't care. I'm still informed on issues, which is what matters to me, and I am still aware of big stories, although I seldom know many details about them (and don't care). More importantly, I am reading more books. 

This is the perfect example of the kind of practice Newport espouses: reducing a digital habit in order to free up more time for an analog pursuit of greater personal value. 

Next steps

For now, I've decided not to adopt Newport's three-part plan, as I feel I'm already on the right path, but many of his examples of digital minimalist practices sparked ideas for my own life. I am making (and tracking) certain changes. When I assess whether these changes bring me more focus and contentment, I'll know if I want to go further. 

- I'm only using social media at designated times and for a designated duration.

- Since all my friends and family (except my partner) are now long-distance, I'm creating opportunities for more meaningful, quality interactions, rather than only seeing friends through social media or the occasional email thread (although email is an important piece of staying in touch). I've invited friends to have regularly scheduled Zoom calls, whether monthly or every other month.

- I got in a habit of keeping my phone handy while watching movies or series when I'm alone at night (on nights my partner is working). I'm in a few group text threads that are fun and important to me, and I'd end up chatting in the thread during shows. Now I'm trying to keep my phone charging in another room while I watch. This is the same dynamic that led me to give up game-threading, even though I valued and enjoyed our Red Sox community: I wanted to stop multi-tasking, and focus more on the game/movie/show. Multitasking makes me feel busy and scattered, the exact opposite of why I watch shows and baseball.

- We're going to try for one screen-free night each week, alternating between a music night and a board game night.

- I've identified my main analog enjoyments (besides reading) and I will ensure that I spend time with at least one, every week.

To the critics

I'd like to respond to two common criticisms of Digital Minimalism.

In many of Newport's examples, digital technology is used to facilitate some analog activity -- for example, watching YouTube videos to learn how to build something. Many people claim this is ironic and hypocritical. It is neither. 

Again, Newport is not anti-technology. He fully recognizes and enjoys the many ways technology can improve our lives. He merely wants us to use technology intentionally, in ways that improve our lives and strengthen real connection. 

In my own life, reading e-books, writing this blog, spending time with long-distance friends on Zoom or WhatsApp, and taking piano lessons online, are all part of digital minimalism -- the intentional use of technology to support activities that give my life meaning. I'm sure you have many examples in your own life.

The second criticism is that Newport himself does not use social media, and never has. People claim that someone who has never used social media is not qualified to write about it or make judgements. One-word response: research. Newport has done extensive research into how and why people use social media. He probably knows more about why people use social media than most people who use it.


Stephanie said...

d thd the times?Yes, thank youQ!

I see youngsters walking past and looking into their device and I wonder, am I so behind the times.

laura k said...

Stephanie, it is not only young people who have this issue. Perhaps it's less common among folks 50+, but it's not at all unusual.

Stephanie said...

Yep you are right, but because I don't use one I figure they are setting the tone themselves.