A group of people in a restaurant, sitting across each other, each texting or surfing on their respective cell phones. A manager working on a key presentation, glances at news notifications to stay ‘updated.’ A student has a quick look at Facebook as he warms up to study. A mother catches up on WhatsApp messages as she feeds a distracted toddler. A person loses a couple of hours ‘surfing’ online for nothing in particular. You forget what task you were working on, since you’ve responded to an email notification, and that has led you to a news site online and then you find yourself shopping online, and there, you’ve just purchased something. These are commonplace scenarios that you may have seen often and probably experienced. Is this just a picture of what increasing connectivity is doing to us or does it indicate something deeper?
Technology has pervaded every aspect of our lives. It is no secret that tech-giants take advantage of the vulnerabilities in human psychology. For example, the human need for approval (sadly mutated to the likes our posts receive on social media platforms) is one such vulnerability that lures us into this digital ecosystem that has been specifically designed to get us addicted.
“We didn’t sign up for the digital lives we now lead. They were instead, to a large extent, crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors,” writes Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism. Skepticism towards networking tools and social media is not unfounded. A recent documentary titled The Social Dilemma on Netflix, highlights how our online behavior is regulated by other forces.
As we end 2020 and begin the new year with a complete work from home mode, digital connectivity is perhaps the most striking reality of our lives today. We have been bombarded with so many articles talking about digital fatigue, screen fatigue, social media related issues, exercises for our eyes, and tips to take care of our health as we are in constant connect mode.
However, Digital Minimalism goes beyond these concerns. Instead, the book and the philosophy it purposes has a wider purpose—how can one curate technology in a manner that benefits us, without being sucked into the ‘black hole’? How can you carefully select the tools (social media networks, apps, websites) that support your values and goals in life as opposed to just using whatever tech tools are available? In short, how can you be an active user of digital tools rather than a passive recipient of what they offer?
By using research evidence and carefully curated case studies, peppered with examples from his own life, Newport presents convincing arguments and techniques that can help the reader evaluate and rethink his or her use of technology.
What you gain when you lose
As Newport points out in the book, we often sign up for tech services to avail of a little benefit. Just because a service offers ‘something’ we are ready to sign up. What the book urges us to do is to think of what one is losing out in that process. In other words, it is a cost-benefit analysis of using network tools.
For example, having a Facebook account offers the benefit of keeping up to date with what’s happening in the lives of friends. However, when you spend hours mindlessly liking photographs on Facebook, what are you losing out on? Is that particular technology the best way of supporting your goal of being in touch with your friends? Once you figure out how losing out on networking tools supports your other goals in life, you are set to live the life of a digital minimalist!
It is one thing to understand arguments for mindful use of technology and networking tools. It’s quite another to put it on practice in our gadget filled lives. This is why the ‘practice’ sections of the book, where the author literally tells us what to do in order to implement the digital minimalist philosophy, makes so much sense. Some of these are good old common-sense suggestions. For example, taking long walks to sort out your thoughts (sans gadgets), indulging in high quality leisure activities (think woodworking, art, playing a musical instrument), scheduling low quality leisure activities as well (think social media), engaging in regular solitude, building something each week (oh the joys of handcrafting!) and so on.
He also chronicles some seemingly trivial but very effective suggestions that seem like no brainers once you implement them. For example, just accessing social media apps from your laptop or PC and deleting them or not downloading them on your smartphone at all, will automatically decrease usage!
One of the practices that really resonated with me was developing ‘conversation centric communication.’ This prevents us from confusing ‘connection’ with ‘communication.’ Hence, to support the goal of being in touch with a friend I must NOT merely like her latest post on social media. That does not count. I may instead, call her and have a chat. Or better, go for a walk with her. This practice has led me to curate the list of people I want to be in touch with meaningfully and increased the quality of my interactions. Needless to say, it’s gained me more time!
Digital Minimalism is not against the use of technology, but argues for a more mindful and curated use of technology in a manner that best supports your values and goals in life. It is a great book to read if you want to learn how you can apply technology in selective and intentional ways to support what you value. It may just be the best way to begin a New Year, filled with a new mindset that proves, “new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption.”