As a continuation of my previous blog post about How I Have Lost Faith in Meaningful Social Network Designs, I would like to continue along a similar line of thought, exploring the rhetoric behind Digital Minimalism – a term used to describe those who take actions to simplify their relationship with technology. Having heard the term ‘digital detox’ mentioned in a previous workgroup, it would be interesting to explore the social behavioural changes in those who choose to go down the path of digital minimalism and those who choose a temporal detox.
What is the difference?
Namely, the fact that the former refers to purging your devices of all things ‘unnecessary’ whereas the latter refers to more of a temporal withdrawal from the use of technology.
However, it’s becoming almost impossible to spend an entire day in the analogue. From checking Buienradar before you leave your house in the morning to taking cash out of the Geldmaat to pay for your coffee and lunch at one of those rare ‘cash-only’ stores, digital technology has become integral to undertaking all sorts of daily activities. Not to mention when you are a student/staff at University where almost all communication is conducted via email, MS Teams or BrightSpace notices.
Perhaps a digital detox is easier to achieve when you’re on vacation and not having to stay on constant alert for email notifications or simply admit to the difficulty of achieving a ‘proper’ digital detox in the current social context. But when the term ‘digital detox’ is becoming increasingly a buzzword, albeit an arbitrary undertaking, what is the practical feasibility of digital minimalism?
‘Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies to this idea of our personal technology. It’s the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world.’Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
According to Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and A World Without Email, Digital Minimalism refers to the intentional redesigning of our relationship with technology. It refers not to a temporal withdraw from our generation-wide addiction to technology but a gradual shift in our daily habits and ultimately, lifestyle.
Owing largely to the popularity of Marie Kondo, a Japanese tidying consultant who grew to fame from the Netflix series Tidying with Marie Kondo and who brought the term ‘minimalism’ and ‘minimalist living’ into the mainstream, Digital Minimalism reflects similar sentiments in living with less and being more ‘intentional with our use of technology.’
In reality, minimalism has little to do with physical belongings and more to do with intention and mindset. To be ‘intentional with our use of technology is to ‘question what digital communication tools (and behaviours surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life’ (Newport, 2016).
Whilst I wholeheartedly stand by the statement that not every interaction, with people or with technology, should necessitate a value-judgement, phenomenal cases of ‘digital addiction’ are rooted in our subconscious practices of giving away our agency to technology. For exchanges of hyper-connectivity with our peers, hyper-efficiency in information procurement, and our own passive reclination from automated systems, we have subconsciously repositioned ourselves as not the users, but the products of technology.
‘I hope this email finds you well’
Take emails as an example. According to an article by Forbes, the average person checks their email about 15 times per day, many of which check emails as early as the first thing in the morning. However, when many of the emails you receive may not even require a response, namely all those newsletters that we sign up initially for a discount code or to gain access to a webpage, or those that are marked as ‘urgent’ but tend to solve themselves as long as you give enough buffer time before responding, our means of collaborating with each other have conquered new heights during the pandemic.
Digitalised communication is optimised for both speed and convenience but at the cost of our physiological health and wellbeing. Despite its facilitation of almost frictionless communication, research has found connections between email-checking and increases in heart rate and blood pressure – tell-tale signs of psychological distress and anxiety. The act of checking emails often detracts us from our work-flow but also contributes directly to social distress by the knowledge of an ever-increasing inbox of unanswered emails whilst simultaneously harvesting our social energy and time when we find ourselves carefully formatting responses that often start with the phrase, ‘I hope this email finds you well.’
Newport identifies that our brains take one-on-one interactions extremely seriously and the lack of attention we pay to university-wide email newsletters stands in direct contrast from the undivided attention we give to writing emails that necessitate a response from the receiver.
Whilst the task of clearing unanswered emails continue to occupy the top priority of my daily morning routine, this unintended social consequence of the email culture is not impossible to be disrupted.
Customised email signatures that said, ‘I have sent this email at a time convenient for me, please reply at a time that is convenient for you’ significantly helped alleviate some of the distress I felt when receiving emails during the pandemic but whilst the power of empathy can go a long way, so can changes in your use of digital technology.
Referring back to the notion of how we were all becoming ‘products’ of technology, Digital Minimalism advocates that we take the extra time to consider what exactly we are checking for on our phones every time we reach for our pockets. Ultimately, it should be your own agency that is driving your usage of the device and not the other way around.
Whilst it deserves a mention that objects can too have agency according to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, the Internet and its networks proffering a prime example of such, it should also be recognised that digitalisation was a phenomenon driven by the intent to provide solutions to pre-digital problems. Whilst GPS helped improved road navigation and Google with the procurement of information, think twice when using platforms that track your engagements only to generate addictive behaviours that benefit the businesses behind ad sales. Social media, I am holding you accountable for the monetisation/market devaluation of my undivided attention.
Digital Minimalism for the average person need not be regarded as an aggressive ‘rejection of technology or a reactionary act of scepticism’ but that of regaining control and mindfulness over your own digital habits. In the same way that our generation is apparently obsessed with self-tracking via mHealth and productivity apps, it’s about sourcing ‘meaning’ (value and purpose) in technology and negotiating a healthier relationship between you and digital technology in a way that doesn’t compromise but instead improves your pre-existing lifestyle.
Extra Reading – Food for Thought:
Brooks, Arthur. C. 7 October 2021. “How to Break a Phone Addiction.” https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/10/digital-addiction-smartphone/620318/. The Atlantic
Logan, Sarah. 8 September 2021. “‘I’d rather be alone’: the influencers pushing for ‘relationship minimalism’”https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/sep/08/marie-kondo-youtube-influencers-relationship-minimalism?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR3l7hL7WZ8YljrJ2McYjQxm4V3DQkuwGw01AFXf6VDZY4xA05amr4JCCHs#Echobox=1631090018 The Guardian.
Cushing, Ellen. 12 October 2021. “How Slack Upended The WorkPlace.” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/11/slack-office-trouble/620173/. The Atlantic.
Newport, Cal. 5 February 2019. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin Random House.
Newport, Cal. 18 December 2016. “On Digital Minimalism” https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/ Cal Newport. (Accessed 1 October 2021)
Silverstre, Dan.18 September 2018. “Digital Minimalism: How to Simplify Your Online Life” https://medium.com/swlh/digital-minimalism-how-to-simplify-your-online-life-76b54838a877 Medium. (Accessed 1 October 2021)
Murphy, Mark. 18 September 2016. “The Way You Check Email Is Making You Less Productive” https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2016/09/18/the-way-you-check-email-is-making-you-less-productive/?sh=78ef79e837e3 Forbes. (Accessed 1 October 2021)
Greer, Laurie. 10 April 2020. “It May Be a Benefit to Change Your Email Signature To Reflect Your Flexible Work Schedule” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/may-benefit-change-your-email-signature-reflect-work-greer-cde LinkedIn (Accessed 1 October 2021)