A Digital Minimalist?

I have read this year’s much recommended book “Digital Minimalism” by Carl Newport last week. I have found the book crisp, practical and easy to read. Here are some of my views after reading it.

Let me start by way of introducing the gist of the book. Newport mentions very early on that he is encouraging a philosophy of “Digital Minimalism“. The idea behind this is not new, he says. Many people understand that too much time spent on social media is not good for our actual social health and the greater social fabric. However, many try the so-called ‘social media detox’ and have found that it does not work. With the carefully engineered algorithms by big tech companies behind social media, Newport reiterates, they will want you to spend as much time as possible swiping and staring at the screen. It is extremely difficult to refocus your behaviour simply with occasional ‘social media detox’. Instead, he proposes that we should (1) stop using every non-essential use of new technologies including social media altogether for 30 days; (2) during that period, we will need to find activities that provide us with values and bring us close to life goals/targets; and then (3) we will have to plan with ourselves how best to reintroduce certain bits of new technology into our lives so that such technology is truly beneficial. He then goes on to mention several examples that we can apply when trying to adopt this philosophy of “Digital Minimalism”.

First and foremost, I agree with the crux of this philosophy. I am sure many of my dear readers also share the same understanding that there is so much going on behind the benign interface of social media applications. We all know that the next minute after you leave a social media application to search for a hotel for your next trip (after the COVID-19 pandemic eases of course), you will find several advertisements of hotels in that particular area popping up like mushrooms. So we will need to be strong in not letting new technologies control and manipulate you (too much). To this end, I fully agree with how digital minimalists regard new technologies.

“Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.”
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 252).

The next thing I agree with is that we need to find what we deeply value. What are our life plans. When we think hard about these, then we will be able to gear our use of new technology to effectively bring us closer to those.

I feel a bit uncomfortable however with the implicit message that seems to strike and single out social media and their users. The impression I have from reading the book is that long period of using social media equals compulsive use. I totally agree that compulsive use of any kind can be detrimental to your health, values and life goals. But this applies across the board, to TV addiction, video games, and other activities be it analog or digital. For me, compulsive use to the point of addiction to something that will prevent you from doing the things you deeply value or contributing to your life goals is not good. Put another way, we should not simply adopt everything that is new in our lives without thinking about what values they give us and how best to extract the benefits from them.

As I said, I share the view that new technologies or indeed any technologies should be seen as tools to support my values and life goals. I do not know if I can be called a digital minimalist since I would regard myself as a moderate user yet I am being careful to ensure that technologies are there to support me and not the other way around. I might have contributed to their profits. But this is a byproduct and the cost I am willing to pay to continue supporting my values and life goals.

With this thinking, I have adopted a variant of digital minimalism for some time. I must say though that this came with time. When I was younger (and at university), I also procrastinated for hours on Facebook. The article that made me rethink my daily dose of social media which I still refer to from time to time is the one by Charles Chu on Quartz. It basically tells you that without spending time compulsively swiping on social media and other addictive activities, you will have time to read at least 200 books. This prompted me to think hard about my core values, what are my goals, what I want to achieve by the end of the year, what activities I wished I had time to do more, and how would I restructure my time and best reap the benefits of new technologies I had at hand. At the end of last year to set my reading goal this year to 50. I am devoting more time to keeping my blog active and finishing my novel. I am picking up on long-distance running and taking more care on my body since a senior colleague of mine once said that you have to get into shape by 30!

Hence, I now use Facebook and Instagram to keep track with my friends and families but perhaps not more than 10-15 minutes everyday for that purpose. I go to Twitter at various intervals during the day to take in some thoughts (and memes) by people I follow. I still communicate a moderate amount through these channels. For me, it’s also good to get some feedback on your cooking or practice some creativity at hashtagging. And I agree, sometimes I am there just for fun. But that is part of my core value. To lead a balanced life. (but I also constantly remind myself that I do not overusing social media purely for pleasure purposes…)

Having read the book, I find quite a few examples Newport gives to support a healthy social life very useful. One of them is to find “conversation office hours”. Newport mentions that he got this from an executive in Silicon Valley who sets aside 5.30pm as the time he will always be available for phone calls. Those who call will not need to schedule beforehand. It gives the caller some comfort, knowing that they will not be disturbing him. So Newport suggests we do the same; setting a conversation office hours at certain time in a day and promote this to those in your inner circle that you would like to have conversation with. I am now setting one up myself.

To conclude, I like the book and I share the philosophy of “Digital Minimalism“. There are quite a few practical (and proven) guidance and examples that we can adopt and follow to ensure that the way we use new technologies contribute to a healthy lifestyle, our deeply held values, and, if I may add, our life goals. While I understand why the book has a tendency to strike social media in particular, I would urge my dear readers to apply this philosophy across the board to include other activities that might be addictive and induce compulsive use. See if they are supporting or contributing to your values and goals. If not, then maybe it might worth a little readjustment.