Digital Minimalism

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Lately, I’ve heard and read a lot about minimalism. I believe it’s an interesting approach on life, not only regarding belongings, but especially regarding behaviour. Personally, I prefer the term Intentionalism though, as that doesn’t directly imply the act of unconditional minimizing. Many of the ideas (and also all the quotes) in this text are taken from the book Digital minimalism by Cal Newport, which I highly recommend you read.

I’ve monitored my phone usage for a few days, and the results were a bit unsettling. I spend quite some time on my phone; watching videos, reading blogs and playing chess. While I don’t think any of that is by itself a bad thing, I do believe unintentional phone usage can easily become a waste of time. As I don’t want to waste my lifetime, I’ve decided to set the goal to limit the time I spend on my phone to two hours per day, which includes checking mail, my calendar and communicating.

Because digital minimalists spend so much less time connected than their peers, it’s easy to think of their lifestyle as extreme, but the minimalists would argue that this perception is backward: what’s extreme is how much time everyone else spends staring at their screens.

“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs, the App Store wants your soul.”

It’s no coincidence that our phone usage has skyrocketed in the last years: Smartphones and smartphone applications are designed to be addicting. Everything is laid out to be either easily accessible and then extremely capturing or straight up distracting. The fact that our phone has become an omnipresent accessory doesn’t make that any better.

We’ve been engaging in a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naively believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods.

Our phones and especially social media platforms are engineered to take up as much time as possible from their users. The constraint on social media and similar services like YouTube to be free of charge has completely shifted their business model. We, the users, are no longer considered customers. How should we if we don’t bring in any money? Instead, we became the product.

The actual customers are now corporations that pay for our data and attention. This way, the goal of the original products, the platforms, is no longer to serve as much value to their users as possible, but to aggregate as much of their data and attention as possible. That’s why those services have become – in general – a negative influence on the life of anyone using them.

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

Newport really draws a nice comparision here. We were being sold nice and shiny tools that offered comfort and new possibilities. But now we’re stuck with devices that control us, distract us and oftentimes even make our lives worse rather than better.

It’s easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life.

Or as Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, puts it:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Our time and nowadays especially our attention belong to the most valuable assets we possess and we’ve traded massive amounts of that time and attention for minor conveniences.

As argued, our current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they’re useful. It’s instead about autonomy. We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons—to look up friends’ relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone—and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.

But we don’t just loose time for other things, that would bring much more value to our lives. We also loose time for simply doing nothing.

Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

When was the last time you stood in line and didn’t have some instant distraction at hand? When was the last time you sat at home and just reflected on your life and your decisions? How would that change if you didn’t always have a phone with you?

The difference between connection and communication

Another strong point Newport makes is that there is a difference between connection and communication.

A similar drive to regulate social approval helps explain the current obsession among teenagers to maintain Snapchat “streaks” with their friends, as a long unbroken streak of daily communication is a satisfying confirmation that the relationship is strong.

But how strong is such a relationship, that only builds on a streak of daily but short and meaningless signs of life? Often, the messages that maintain such streaks contain nothing more than the current time, in white letters over black background. I’m speaking from my own experience here. These messages are the perfect example for connection instead of communication. Real communication requires more input, not only in terms of semantic information, but also things like modulations in vocal range or facial expressions. Text messages should not be considered communication, as they lack any information other than the semantic content they contain. But still, for many people they replace the role of regular communication like a real conversation or even phone/video calls. Instead of replacing this real communication, they should only play a logistical role and this way could actually support real communication:

In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.

How to limit the time spent on your phone/social media

I’ve compiled a personal list of rules that help me waste less time on my phone or social media:

  1. Turn off all notifications.

    This essentially allows me to take back control of my days. If you try this yourself, you’ll soon realize how incredibly liberating it is to not be distracted by your phone every few minutes.

  2. Track and limit time spent on your phone/ social media.

    Time I spend on my phone often accumulates without me instantly noticing it, so it was a great idea to track it for at least a few days and grant myself a general view of how things really are – try it out, you might actually surprise yourself.

  3. Remove all games/social media from your phone.

    If I still want to use social media, I now favor a single purpose computer instead. Thus, my usage automatically became more intentional and less absorbing.

  4. Don’t check social media/email except for specified times through the day.

  5. Don’t check your phone in bed.

  6. Don’t take your phone to the bathroom.

  7. Look at your food while eating.

  8. Cut off your internet connection at a certain time.

  9. Turn on grayscale mode.

    This will make your phone screen way less appealing to look at.

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© Niklas Bühler, 2021 RSS / Contact me