Digital technologies are a double-edged sword.
In 2021, we enjoy the tremendous privilege to stay connected with anybody we’ve ever met, to answer any question at any moment, and to have endless entertainment and enrichment wherever we are. As we’re on the tail end of a global pandemic, computers have kept many of us employed and semi-sane over the past year. Important social movements are organized via social media, and medical advancements have skyrocketed with moden computing. No doubt, computers are incredible.
At the same time, many of us suffer from digital too-muchness, myself included. As outlined in The Social Dilemma, social media usage is correlated with anxiety, depression, addictive behavior, and political polarization.
My own relationship with technology is a daily problem. I’ll open my phone to add something to my grocery list. But I can spare two minutes, so I’ll play a quick game of bullet chess. Then that turns into ten games. Then I’ll check Discord for new messages, then browse Reddit, then back to Discord, all the while wishing that I would put my phone down. This is no exaggeration; I struggle daily with my smartphone and computer habits. It makes me feel powerless and out-of-control.
I am increasingly convinced that this loss of control is a natural byproduct of the technologies' design. Digital media are made to stick, and engineers have gotten dreadfully good at making products addictive. Your Undivided Attention explores how they do it. The Shallows demonstrates how just the one-medium-fits-all nature of the internet literally reshapes our brains to inhibit deeper thought.
As the saying goes: “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product”. As Jaron Lanier says: “That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
Inspired by Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, this June I’ll refrain from optional technologies, including Reddit, Discord, audibooks, video games, and most heart-wrenchingly, the NY Times crossword.
This is distinct from a “digital detox”; I’m not just taking a break. My intention is to re-imagine how I want to interact with digital technologies. After June, I’ll slowly reintroduce certain technologies, some with usage protocols. It’s like an elimination diet: I’m figuring out which technologies empower me, which hurt me, and which are OK in moderation. To do that, I need to establish a baseline.
So, for the month of June, I’ve made a list of technologies that are allowed, and a list of technologies that are forbidden:
Allowed: Email, SMS, phone calls, Google Chat/Meet, Google Calendar, GPS (before driving, not while), bug trackers at work, Kindle, Evernote, Todoist, online recipes, guitar chords, meditation timer, camera, Google Photos, social games (e.g. Among Us), banking/budgeting software, hobby software projects.
Forbidden: Reddit, Audible, Discord, Slack, phone games, NY Times crossword, Youtube (except music), Netflix, my company’s internal meme site, Nintendo Switch, solo Steam games, HackerNews, Sporcle.
Soft touch: Spotify (sometimes OK at work); TV/movies with Jill (prefer non-digital entertainment); Wikipedia (do I need to look this up?); and I’m totally going to watch Loki on Disney+.
For the past week, I’ve been psyching myself up for my month off. I’ve been practicing my new restrictions. I thrifted a classic alarm clock for $0.27. I migrated my Getting Things Done lists from Todoist to real paper. I’ve noticed a few things:
- I crave digital stimulation in every idle moment. I feel it when I’m making coffee in the morning, when I’m waiting for my code to compile, when Jill steps out of the room for thirty seconds, when I step into the bathroom. There’s no intentionality when I reach for my phone; it’s purely habitual.
- When I decide to avoid optional technologies for several hours, I feel great. Avoiding the immediate stimulation allows me to engage with deeper tasks, and to seek deeper satisfaction. Little chunks of time and little slivers of attention add up. And it makes me feel so much less anxious!
- It’s easy to backslide. All it takes is a momentary decision to play one quick phone game, and 45 minutes disappear and I feel like crap. It makes me feel eager to start my declutter in earnest.
I’m most nervous about letting go of Discord, because I maintain lots of social relationships there. But this is an experiment, so we’ll see what happens. I look forward to maintaining those relationships via SMS and phone calls.
Stay tuned for my post-June update.