Digital Minimalism

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Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) shows how social media sites, smartphones, and other modern innovations became major contributors to the rise of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Author Cal Newport argues that many users have become dependent on smartphones and the applications those phones can access to fill spare moments in their days. While laptops and other electronics can be used to access addictive applications and social media sites, smartphones are much more portable; they allow a user to stay constantly connected to distracting media and information. A few moments spent scrolling through social media on a smartphone can turn into hours; some people stare at screens for eight hours or more daily, not counting screen time at work. All that time spent in front of screens leaves little room for introspection, learning a new skill, or strengthening a relationship, activities that were more commonplace before smartphones were introduced in the early 2000s. Technology can be a useful addition to life without becoming an all-consuming component of it. By taking a 30-day break from the optional digital activity, compulsive users can learn how to replace digital dependence with meaningful, relaxing activities. They can then slowly integrate some technology back into their lives but as tools rather than sources of entertainment.

When major technological innovations like Facebook and the iPhone were introduced, no one knew how much they would fundamentally change how people communicate and connect with one another. Facebook was a small website meant only for college students; it didn’t serve as a platform for looking up news, streaming TV shows, and sharing family pictures. The iPhone designers believed that its primary draw would be its ability to both stream music and make calls; the web browser was more of a novelty. As technology improved, however, smartphone owners began using applications more frequently, both to complete professional work and to enhance their personal lives. Facebook became a way to connect with friends without having to call, and Twitter notifications became an alternative to the evening news. Social media sites and mobile applications, for many people, replaced in-person interaction and offered quick fixes for boredom.

Compulsive device users don’t become dependent on technology by accident. Social media companies purposefully design their platform to capture a user’s attention for longer periods of time. Apps created for the smartphone employ tactics meant to lull people into mindless use. Primarily, these companies create features that manipulate two common human desires: the longing for reward and the need for social approval. Notifications from social media sites can serve as a source of easy, sporadic boosts to mood, encouraging people to use the apps for longer periods of time. Many apps even mark notifications in red to draw a user’s attention and prolong time online. Smartphone users can easily gain a sense of social approval by posting a positive message or a photo of themselves on social media; when a post doesn’t receive the expected attention, the user may be disappointed, but the chance at social validation will compel another attempt. Social media notifications function much like slot machines when it comes to encouraging compulsive behavior. With each refresh, users are granted another chance at social approval.

New media companies encourage compulsive behavior because they profit off the continued attention of users. They are part of the digital attention economy — a class of companies and professions that make money not by directly selling a product, but by selling their user’s eyes and desires to advertisers. When users choose to eliminate unnecessary scrolling, they not only free up time, they also prevent themselves from being manipulated by corporations.

Becoming a digital minimalist requires adopting a philosophy that can guide the use of technology and prevent mindless scrolling. While taking a month-long break, called a digital declutter, aspiring minimalists should decide how they want to spend their time and whether technology can help them achieve their goals. Slowly, technology can be added back into a person’s life. Each site, app, and the digital device should be examined individually to determine whether it can fit under the person’s philosophy. If the digital product is deemed worthy, users should then consider how best to use the product to improve their life. When users develop a minimalist mindset, smartphones and other digital offerings can become useful tools that enable success, rather than draining devices used to waste time.

The key insights for this book are:

  1. Compulsive smartphone use is an example of behavioral addiction.
  2. Before starting a digital declutter, an aspiring minimalist must replace device use with an enjoyable, compelling activity.
  3. If a device or social media site is unavoidable, the aspiring minimalist should create rules that enforce when and how that tool will be used.
  4. Smartphones and other digital distractions have made it difficult to enjoy the act of contemplation.
  5. Texting and instant messaging cannot substitute for an in-person conversation.
  6. Periods of solitude can strengthen relationships and improve the experience of spending time with others.
  7. Leisure time is more satisfying when it’s used to create, fix, or learn more about something in the physical world.
  8. In most cases, analog or low-tech replacements can be found for smartphones and other advanced devices.

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