I’ve worked with technology all my life – from my early attempts to write a computer programme on punch cards (I dropped the deck – attempt over) way back when the only materials on microprocessors were typewritten pages – the technology was moving so fast that no-one had got round to writing the books – through working on process and laboratory computer systems and surviving the early years of personal computers and networks. I’ve worked on global email services and corporate collaboration software, and helped design computer systems that supported tens of thousands of users world wide. I even worked on palmtop computers and tablet PCs before the iPhone and iPad were a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eyes. Computer technology is woven in and around my life, so when I encountered Cal Newport’s book ‘Digital Minimalism’ I wasn’t sure whether this was something to welcome, or something to run from.
The book is subtitled ‘on living better with less technology’ and is a long hard look at the benefits – and the pitfalls – of our ‘always connected’ world. As Adlai Stevenson observed in 1955:
Technology, while adding daily to our physical ease, throws daily another loop of fine wire around our souls. It contributes hugely to our mobility, which we must not confuse with freedom.
In a similar vein, Max Frisch observed that technology is “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”.
Newport argues that computer use, and particularly the combined impact of mobile computing and social media, is a dangerously powerful narcotic that draws us away from reality and into a dangerous shadow world. He cites examples like Facebook’s introduction of the ‘Like’ button which turned Facebook into a social slot machine – every post being a gamble as to whether anyone would like or comment on their post. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all provide a continual hum of distraction such that their users live continually fearful of missing out, while we try to apply rules of normal conversation to an audience that may comprise several hundred vaguely interested parties. We substitute a rushed online ‘Happy Birthday’ or comment ‘awww’ on a new baby snap for real interaction and conversation while drawing attention away from what really matters.
Rather than simply ditching technology and trying to live without it, Newport introduces what he refers to as a philosophy of Digital Minimalism which supports our values and our goals:
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 suggests that we work out what’s important to us, and then decide whether technology supports this for us – and forces us to ask not only ‘is this useful for me?’ but also ‘is this the best way to support me in this?’ Having worked out what’s really useful, and disregarding digital activities that add little real value, we can escape some of the bonds of our digital slavery and focus our lives on things that really matter.
Cal suggests a thirty day ‘digital declutter’ to take a break from optional technologies (recognising that for many of us technology use is part of our work lives) to decide what’s useful – and what isn’t). At the end of the month, you’re free to reintroduce technologies – provided that you have a clear purpose for it to support something you value.
Cal’s principles can be summed up:
Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Cluttering our time and attention with too many devices and apps that demand huge amounts of interaction costs us our productivity, real-life connections, creativity and the pursuit of a well-developed leisure life.
Principle #2: Optimization is important. We need to figure out how to use technology to best support the things that we value.
Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. “Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies.”
In place of this he suggests that we dedicate more time to disconnected leisure, to the practice of solitude, to walks and to time for reflection and deep thought, as practiced by Lincoln, Thoreau and Nietzsche, who observed that ‘only thoughts obtained by walking have value’. He suggests we spend more time on deepening personal social connection rather than the surface froth of ‘social’ media. He also advocates picking up a creative craft, whether that be woodworking, the guitar or gardening – and if possible to find a way to do that in a social setting.
When I did my own version of his declutter I found that ‘always on’ computing tended to be a distraction. I started using a program called ‘Freedom’ which blocked access to distracting web sites like Facebook or YouTube for substantial parts of the day. I started turning my internet router off at night – and leaving it off for most of the day. (I have a suspicion that removing one more source of radiation from my home has improved my sleep). I bought a real clock rather than relying on my phone for wakeup alarms and relegated it to charging downstairs. I even separated my study desk from my work desk, making it harder to just check something on my laptop. I regularly have ‘unplug days’ where technology simply doesn’t happen.
I stripped a lot of applications from my phone, making it harder to just check Facebook or Twitter, and went in hard to drop subscriptions, newsletters and Facebook groups that add little real value. I use the Social Fixer app to filter my Facebook feed and remove stuff that’s irrelevant, and rarely check it on my phone. I now resist ‘liking’ products and services, and try and avoid clicking ‘like’ or commenting as it just brings another flow of less than relevant commentary into my feed. Early on in my use of email – and now carried on into WhatsApp and Messenger – I started to disable notifications and alerts so that my phone isn’t a source of continual interruption. As you might expect, technology is a useful tool for me, but I’m determined to keep it in its place. That’s not always easy – but it’s certainly a goal.
And I am continually refining. Deciding what matters and what doesn’t. Finding ways to use technology to support my values and goals and dreams, to underpin the things that matter. Technology is in my blood.. but I am determined that it supports me rather than dominating my life.
I happen to think that ‘Digital Minimalism’ is well worth reading. There’s plenty of science in there to back it up along with real world stories of people who’ve explored the idea. If you take one or two ideas on board it’ll make a huge difference. Go for a full digital declutter and ask yourself the hard questions, and it might just change your life.
Find out more at www.timhodgson.org
(Watch this space for a review of Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ soon. He also has a new book ‘A World Without Email (reimagining work in an age of communication overload)’ which I hope to get round to reading soon – but for those of you who buried under a deluge of corporate email, you might want to check that out!)