Digital Minimalism and philosophy in tech
I've been rethinking my relationship with technology since I started reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
After mentioning this book is usually when a blog tells his audience he's deleted his social media accounts and can now be reached only by smoke signal.
But this is not that kind of post, dear reader.
I appreciate that Digital Minimalism is not a book of prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice for living with technology in the 21st century. While Newport himself is no fan of social media, he leaves it up to individuals to define their own relationships with the tech they use regularly. Newport's most important message is that you think about where technology fits in your life, not that we all reach the same conclusions and use or avoid all the same services.
Digital Minimalism is not a how-to guide. It is instead a guide calling its readers to develop their own philosophy about where technology fits into their lives.
After I started reading the book, I deleted from my phone nearly every app not related to calling, texting, or navigation.
Newport suggests suspending use of any problematic apps for a month. He refers to this time as the “decluttering” period. Once the decluttering period is over, you re-introduce the temporarily banned tech back into your usage and observe whether you think it still has a place in your life. Newport claims that often people realize they no longer need the tech, making their decluttering periods permanent.
I made it a week before I reversed my declutter, because I'm lacking in moral fiber. But I have kept most social apps from my phone this go round.
And though I have deviated from Newport's recommendations, I have started creating distance between myself and my phone. I've started leaving it behind in other rooms of the house. And my short break does seem to have made putting my phone down much easier when I know I need to.
My declutter has made me realize how much I prefer the desktop (or laptop) experience over the mobile experience in most situations. I'm an elder millennial, so I'm better with a traditional keyboard and mouse than I am with an onscreen keyboard.
I recently got a couple a couple used (or “previously enjoyed”) laptops through my job. The laptops are nowhere near the latest and greatest specs. They can't upgrade to Windows 11, but they run Linux just fine (currently Solus).
Still, these laptops are thin and powerful enough for everything I need. Ten or fifteen years ago, it would been impossible to think of how I could ever need anything more. Especially when you consider the near ubiquity of public wifi.
But now, in the age of smartphones, we want the same conveniences once reserved for laptops at our disposal through these devices many of us keep in our pockets at all times.
Perhaps it's easy to gush over tech like laptops when propping it against the smartphone. Perhaps the smartphone is a scapegoat, the villainous flavor of the week.
I do not believe eliminating smartphones will fix everything. We would find a substitute for distraction, perhaps laptops and desktop computers.
But that's a problem we can address when we've improved our relationships with our smartphones. This acknowledgment makes us better prepared in the war for our attention.
While Newport doesn't say everyone should delete all social media, he doesn't hide his opinion that social media holds little to no value. These days it's fashionable to jump on Newport's side and crap on social media while ignoring any benefits.
The reason I fell in love with the Internet way back in the late '90s is the same reason I stick around on social media and related platforms in 2022: The potential for connection that's harder to find offline.
Connections made over the Internet are not a substitute for connections with my family and other people I see offline. While I can get along with almost anyone I meet face to face, there are very few I can nerd out with on anything that truly interests me. Or at least not to the depth I want to go. Also, I tend to hop from interest to interest. It's always nice to know I can find other parties interested in the same things, on the Internet, often in the form of social media.
Perhaps I would feel differently if I were part of some sort of establishment I could fall back on.
But I would be disingenuous to gloss over my gripes with social media, which relies on sloppy algorithms to decide which content is worth promoting. (I'm looking at you, Meta, LinkedIn, Twitter . . .)
When I think back to my favorite times in online communities, they were often in communities that hadn't yet been adopted by the masses. And while that may make me sound like an idealistic hipster who wants to keep his hangouts under the radar so that he can have them all to himself, I find my defense more practical than that.
The simple truth is that, in most cases:
Mass adoption = commoditization.
And once you start catering to everyone, you end up serving no one. And, at some point, the experiences all run together, as the users and their avatars do. And you get an experience similar to what you likely find offline, in which few of the experiences stand out above the rest.
Before reading Digital Minimalism, I was becoming convinced that a return to smaller online communities was the best path forward. I still believe that in theory, though I haven't begun practicing it as well as I should.
I'm not sure of the exact limits of this practice either. Obvious candidates include places like micro.blog and niche Mastodon servers. Maybe even the smaller subreddits. I suppose you can create an insular experience on Twitter if you follow the right people.
Does that mean Newport's preference for walking away from social media is the answer?
I'm not ready to jump on that train. But I can't blame anyone who does.
I hope this essay shines some light on the need for philosophy—perspective over advice—in all aspects of our lives, even in technology.