Digital Minimalism: Less is More

We did­n’t sign up for the dig­i­tal lives we now lead. Tech­nol­o­gy is seduc­ing us in a per­fid­i­ous way, hijack­ing our atten­tion. Cal New­port offers a counter-pro­pos­al with his phi­los­o­phy of “Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism”.

Maybe I just grew too old for this. Any­way, the fas­ci­na­tion of Twit­ter and LinkedIn has giv­en way to a feel­ing of strain and some­times over­load. At least since the increas­ing­ly acri­mo­nious and strong­ly polar­iz­ing dis­cus­sions around COVID-19. For a long time I did­n’t want to admit what is obvi­ous. In social media I am not the cus­tomer, but rather the prod­uct. It’s all about cap­tur­ing my atten­tion with insid­i­ous addic­tion-enhanc­ing mech­a­nisms for as long as pos­si­ble. With suc­cess, as a sober look at the screen time of my iPhone shows:

Typical screen time - not exactly an example of digital minimalism.

In his TED-Talk, Tris­tan Har­ris explains the issues very well. And he should know, because he has stud­ied these mech­a­nisms at the “Stan­ford Per­sua­sive Tech­nol­o­gy Lab” and applied them at Google until one day doubts came over him. He then wrote a slide deck that went so viral inter­nal­ly at Google that Lar­ry Page invit­ed him to talk and named him “Design Ethi­cist”. How­ev­er, since Google is part of this atten­tion indus­try and earns its mon­ey from it, his effec­tive­ness there remained lim­it­ed, so he left Google in 2016 to found the “Cen­ter for Humane Tech­nol­o­gy” and has since been work­ing towards a more mind­ful and eth­i­cal approach to human atten­tion.

This is all suf­fi­cient­ly well known today. How­ev­er, as with oth­er addic­tive behav­iors, knowl­edge alone is of no use. Oth­er­wise there would be no casi­nos in Las Vegas and oth­er­wise the slot machines there would not make so unbe­liev­ably much rev­enue. And of course it’s no coin­ci­dence that you can pull down just about any time­line on your smart­phone to get a refresh. New game, new chance.

The deci­sive fac­tor here is the ran­dom reward. This could be the one new inter­est­ing sto­ry on LinkedIn. Even bet­ter, though, is how “likes” work, at least for me. Every like (which is now avail­able on LinkedIn in five dif­fer­ent nuances) is a sign of appre­ci­a­tion and I real­ly like appre­ci­a­tion for my arti­cles and oth­er activ­i­ties. And if these likes come up ran­dom­ly and it’s nev­er sure how many likes will be dis­played the next time the smart­phone is unlocked, then I feel like the pigeons in an exper­i­ment from the 1970s: unpre­dictable rewards are far more appeal­ing than pre­dictable ones. And just as the pigeons keep peck­ing at the but­ton where they get more or less food, I pick up the smart­phone more often than it makes sense or is nec­es­sary.

The hot new tech­nolo­gies that emerged in the past decade or so are par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to fos­ter behav­ioral addi­tions, lead­ing peo­ple to use them much more than they think is use­ful or healthy. […] Com­pul­sive use, in this con­text, is not the result of a char­ac­ter flaw, but instead the result of a mas­sive­ly prof­itable busi­ness plan. We did­n’t sign up for the dig­i­tal lives we now lead.

Cal New­port

No, this is indeed not the dig­i­tal life I had signed up for. And with­out try­ing to talk my way out of it, I am firm­ly con­vinced that I am also a vic­tim of a lop­sided arms race by the atten­tion indus­try. In 2010 I signed up for Twit­ter (LinkedIn came much lat­er) to get new impuls­es by chance(!), but also to spread my con­tent and ideas and to get in touch with inter­est­ing peo­ple in the dis­cus­sion. And all that worked and works very well. There­fore I always argued with this obvi­ous and for me unde­ni­able ben­e­fit of social media.

This is exact­ly the argu­men­ta­tion that the com­put­er sci­ence pro­fes­sor and author Cal New­port uses in his 2019 book “Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate Link). In it, he describes his phi­los­o­phy of con­scious tech­nol­o­gy use, which at its core is not about absti­nence, but about con­scious­ly decid­ing which tech­nol­o­gy is to be used for which pur­pose in the best pos­si­ble way.

Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism: A phi­los­o­phy of tech­nol­o­gy use in which you focus on 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.

Cal New­port

For an intro­duc­tion to Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism, Cal New­port describes the process of Dig­i­tal Declut­ter­ing. For a peri­od of 30 days, one dis­pens­es with option­al tech­nolo­gies and uses this time to devote one­self to oth­er activ­i­ties and behav­iors. With the clar­i­ty of this 30-day absti­nence, you then deter­mine for each tech­nol­o­gy how it enrich­es your life, whether it is the best tech­nol­o­gy to do so, and if so, how it can be used opti­mal­ly.

So much for the the­o­ry. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly I have one month of parental leave now and dur­ing this time I would rather ded­i­cate myself to my fam­i­ly than count­ing likes. Since Twit­ter and LinkedIn are still valu­able chan­nels and will always remain so as long as I blog, I can’t com­plete­ly do with­out them, but will only severe­ly restrict their use (also allowed and intend­ed in the process of Dig­i­tal Declut­ter­ing). So I unin­stalled both on my smart­phone (just like Insta­gram, which I hard­ly use any­way). Instead, I’ll only take care of the one or the oth­er dis­cus­sion at a few clear­ly defined times.

So there is no need to wor­ry if I do not reply imme­di­ate­ly in future. On the con­trary.

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