In a 2016 essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Andrew Sullivan explored his debilitating digital addiction. The subtitle of Sullivan’s essay grabs our attention:
An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.
There is at least a bit of Sullivan in many of us, judging by the popularity of computer science professor Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism. Are we mindlessly spending too much time online and not enough time in the real world?
If your online habits are interfering with your productivity, your leisure time, or your relationships, Newport deserves your rapt attention. Newport has already written several of the most important professional and personal development books of the past decade. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport debunks the conventional wisdom that following your passion leads to success. In Deep Work, Newport convincingly argues that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing we are effective multitaskers; we would all benefit by more “distraction-free concentration.”
You May Be Addicted
Some scoff at the idea of social media addiction, thinking addiction as something afflicting drug or alcohol abusers.
Facebook and other social media sites are designed to addict you. They use, in Newport’s words, “intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval” as tools to get you to use their products at the expense of better uses of your time.
Former Google engineer Tristan Harris likened the frequent checking of your phone to using a slot machine:
Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, "What did I get?
When you post, Newport asks, “Will you get likes (or hearts or retweets), or will it languish with no feedback? The former creates what one Facebook engineer calls “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” In 2017, Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, described “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” with the aim of hijacking our attention:
“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content.
If you aren’t a Facebook user, don’t think you’re immune from digital addiction. Newport writes,
Many people have the experience of visiting a content website for a specific purpose—say, for example, going to a newspaper site to check the weather forecast—and then find themselves thirty minutes later still mindlessly following trails of links, skipping from one headline to another. This behavior can also be sparked by unpredictable feedback: most articles end up duds, but occasionally you’ll land on one that creates a strong emotion, be it righteous anger or laughter.
Another factor reinforcing “behavioral addiction” is “the drive for social approval.” Newport explains:
In Paleolithic times, it was important that you carefully managed your social standing with other members of your tribe because your survival depended on it… If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval—which we’re adapted to strongly crave. The other side of this evolutionary bargain, of course, is that a lack of positive feedback creates a sense of distress.
With this sense of distress, “an urgent need to continually monitor this ‘vital’ information” can develop.
Towards a Philosophy of Technology Use
If your attention has been hijacked, Newport is convinced you need
a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.
Newport recommends 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.
Are You a Technological Minimalist or a Maximalist?
Most of us, Newport observes, deploy our digital life with an unquestioned maximalist mindset. With a maximalist mindset “any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention.”
The maximalist is like a politician who looks at the benefits of a program without ever considering its costs.
“Techno-maximalism,” Newport writes, "contends more is better when it comes to technology—more connections, more information, more options.” On the surface techno-maximalism, Newport writes, seems to dovetail
with the general objective of the liberal humanism project to offer individuals more freedom, making it seem vaguely illiberal to avoid a popular social media platform or decline to follow the latest online chatter.
On the contrary, Newport warns, a techno-maximalism approach may not be leading you to freedom:
Outsourcing your autonomy to an attention economy conglomerate—as you do when you mindlessly sign up for whatever new hot service emerges from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist class—is the opposite of freedom, and will likely degrade your individuality.
Be wary, Newport advises
of low-value activities that can clutter up [your] time and attention and end up hurting more than they help.
Out of a fear of “missing out on small things,” are we “diminishing the large things” that “make a good life good”?
If You Want to Change
Awareness of an issue is the foundation for change. A next step is behavioral change. Newport provides many suggestions for behavioral change that may inspire our own. Here are just a few:
Consider a digital declutter.
Are you cluttering your life “with too many devices, apps, and services … that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation”? If so, become more intentional about how you engage with technology.
For example, I gave up on Twitter many years ago; it just took too much of my time and attention. Newport observes,
When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces. Maintaining an active presence on Twitter, for example, might occasionally open up an interesting new connection or expose you to an idea you hadn’t heard before. How much of your time and attention… must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter?
Newport exhorts us to
treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance—arguably the most valuable substance we possess—and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time.
Remove social media apps from your phone.
Having removed apps from your phone, you won’t “browse their accounts as a knee-jerk response to boredom.” Newport points out that you can still gain the benefits of those sites through your browser.
Engage in more real-world conversations.
Millennials and others are struggling with face-to-face communications. Newport, building on the work of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, points out that digital interactions are no substitute for face-to-face conversations. Face-to-face, in Turkle’s words, is
where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.
Digital interaction makes a connection but “doesn’t count as conversation” because we miss "nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of [someone’s] voice or facial expressions.”
Reclaim Your Leisure.
Newport points to a crucial element of lasting change: “[B]y cultivating a high-quality leisure life first, it will become easier to minimize low-quality digital diversions later.”
It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping.
His recommendation: “Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.”
Build things and fix things. Write something. Compose something. Learn to cook. Turn back towards long-abandoned hobbies. Discover new hobbies. You may have abandoned the piano or guitar years ago, but you can begin again.
Newport endorses “activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.” For example, Newport waxes eloquently about the camaraderie in today’s CrossFit community. Until my 30s, hiking club and bicycling club activities were a major part of my leisure activity. Clubs such as the Appalachian Mountain Club still thrive in today’s digital era.
The Question Social Media Companies Don’t Want You to Ask
It’s easy to see why we use social media, but the question we rarely ask is how we use it. Newport writes, “Once people start thinking seriously about the [how], they tend to recognize that they’re spending way too much time online.” Consider this,
Facebook, which had fewer than a million users ten years ago, now has over two billion and is the fifth most valuable company in the US, with a market cap of over $500 billion. ExxonMobil, by contrast, is currently worth around $370 billion. Extracting eyeball minutes, the key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil.
Newport’s book helps us examine how we use technology and offers “highly selective and intentional ways [to use it] that yield big wins.”
With mindful use of technology, we can say: "Because of technology, I’m a better human being than I ever was before."