digital minimalism

According to Common Sense Media, around half of American teenagers feel addicted to their mobile devices. About 28% of teens feel their parents are addicted to their mobile devices.

According to Adam Alter’s book Irresistible, there were 280 million smartphone addicts worldwide in 2015. That would amount to the fourth most populous country in the world.

Alter adds that up to 59% of people say they’re dependent on social media sites and that their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy. Of that group, half say they need to check those sites at least once an hour. We are a people who are trading in our autonomy for a product that most of us don’t even like very much because we are addicted to being “liked.”

Bill Maher summarized the problem in his typical acerbic fashion on his HBO show:

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

Nicholas Carr, writing a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Smart-phones Hijack Our Minds,” says that the average iPhone owner will check his phone over 80 times a day. “That means you’ll be consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year. Your new phone, like your old one, will become your constant companion and trusty factotum–your teacher, secretary, confessor, guru. The two of you will be inseparable.”

Through the rest of the article, Carr mentions study after unsettling study that shows what happens to our minds “when we allow a single tool such dominion over our perception and cognition.” We are more anxious, disengaged, and even dumber.

A couple of years ago I chose to focus my doctoral research on a philosophical and theological assessment of digital technology. Upon reflection, it isn’t hard to understand why I chose this topic. Like the counseling major who needs counseling or the philosophy major who needs stable truth, I chose this topic because I was growing more and more uneasy with what I sensed technology was (and is) doing to me and those closest to me. I hate that groggy, glitchy feeling that you get from spending too much time scrolling. I hate that look I get from my kids when they’ve caught me absentmindedly on my phone instead of attending to them. I hate to see them following my example. I hate the reflexive way I’ve come to check my phone even when I really couldn’t care less about what I might learn from looking at it. I hate the “ambient intimacy” that social media encourages. I hate being on a digital leash. I hate getting emotional about what I see on my phone while I become numb to the real world around me. I hate giving the distraction economy exactly what it wants. In short, I chose this topic for very personal reasons. With technology, it feels like I’ve invited a tenant into my house (although it is hard to remember exactly how or when this relationship began), and this tenant proceeded to completely take over the house, raid the fridge, clog the toilet, and kick my dog. My study has focused on understanding the problem of digital technology so that I can begin to take control of it and help others in the same process.

I have a ways to go.

I’ve read a lot of interesting literature on the issue over the last year or so, but much of the literature has been about the effects of digital technology without much practical guidance on what, if anything, can be done about it. However, I recently finished a book that did offer some of this guidance. The book is titled Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. The goal of the book is to help the reader take control of digital technology in order to maximize its benefits while minimizing its negative effects.

Here’s how he defines “digital minimalism” – “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” He adds that digital minimalists work “backwards from their deep values to their technology choices…digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived.” He’s not at all advocating the abandonment of digital technology. Such an approach for many people isn’t possible, and it isn’t even necessary. There are great benefits to digital technology when it serves us rather than masters us. Instead of abandonment, he’s advocating that we take a step back from technology so that we can make judgments about its use that are informed by our values. Our values aren’t shaped by technology. Our use of technology is shaped by our values. But in order to get to this point of clear discernment, we must go through a period of digital decluttering.

Newport offers a three-step digital declutter process to move towards digital minimalism:

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. This step is critical. Most of our efforts to overcome bad habits are sabotaged because we don’t replace any of those bad habits with good habits.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

I’ve decided I’m going to take him up on his challenge in the month of October. During this month I will abstain from all social media, I will only check my email during work hours (sorry, students), I will turn the radio off in my car while driving to and from work, and I will not watch television in isolation from others.

Is this something that you are interested in trying along with me? If so, let me know by filling out this brief form. I’d like to be able to share our experiences throughout the month.


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