Digital Minimalism / Digital Necessity

13 May

I was on a plane this weekend. I love flying, partially because it is a miracle of modern science and I never get tired of cloud shadows out the window, and partially because it is one of the few spaces where I feel inspired (because of said miracles of science and the view) and also am totally shut off from the internet for a few hours.

This is not some grandiose saintly choice on my part. I have tried, oh I have tried, to milk my $8’s worth of wifi on flights before, but mostly it never loads and I feel frustrated and sad about losing the $8, so I have learned to airplane mode my devices and be with myself on a plane.

The terrifying part, though, is that I’ll still try to open apps on my phone that have no chance of being useful at all at cruising altitude. My mind will wander to something I need to do, triggering anxiety, which makes me want to open Twitter to scroll for a second’s distraction. The phone unlock and click Twitter motion is so engrained I could do it in the dark upside down on fire. It’s a terrible habit, and it’s magnified when I am 1000% unable to scratch the anxiety balm itch flying over the Permian Basin full of cloud shadows.

Now, I know Twitter isn’t a balm AT ALL, so strike 49 against me right there. Between the 6 email inboxes on my phone, my text messages, my Facebook Messenger app, the 10ish Facebook pages I manage and THEIR inboxes, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else I decide to torture myself with…it’s hard to get a moment’s peace anymore.

I used to think I was a digital pioneer, back in the Wild West days of the early 2000’s. I was “lucky” to come of digital age in college, to have high-speed internet in the dorms and the wherewithal to sign up for everything that came along. Facebook started when I was in college. I uploaded my first Youtube video in college. Twitter started the year after I graduated and I have had an account ever since. It was my job to be on the forefront of these apps and sites because what if one of them would take off and be the cause of launching every musician on it to worldwide fame and unending fortune? Obviously that was the track, and we all just had to be paying attention and stay ahead.

Fast forward to now, and well…our brains are rotting, I think. Mine is. Attention spans are demonstrably shorter. We are constantly in touch without having real conversations. We are lonelier than we ever have been while having access to most every person we know and every thought recorded by humans. That’s weird, isn’t it?

It stifles creativity, too, while preaching constant creation. How many long form essays or songs or videos have never gotten made because we put just enough creative attention into a Facebook post or an Instastory? All content for the machine instead of ourselves.

All of this mounting frustration at a thing that is widely accepted and embraced by our culture and also at this point expected (everyone basically needs replies to text messages instantaneously which is, by historical standards of communication up until about 2006, INSANE) has lead me to a couple of books about the issue and what to do about it, which is how I found myself on a plane scribbling notes in a real notebook and daydreaming about being a better, more productive, less stressed person.

One book, without giving the name, sort of came off as a luddite griping about “kids these days.” Which is misleading because digital excess has infiltrated every age group at this point, and in my non-scientific research, the older generations have NO ROOM TO TALK HERE. Anyway.

The book I think I like best is the very insightful without being judgey Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. None of the content is really mind-blowingly new information but to see it all laid out, from some history of how this digital overload crept into our lives to how tech companies fight for our attention and take advantage of our core social needs and values to do so…seems useful.

The concept of “solitude deprivation” stuck out to me. Up until even the 1990’s, solitude was not exactly hard to find…solitude being defined as the ability to be alone with your thoughts, not necessarily running away to the woods alone. Standing on a street corner in 1980…you heard traffic, you heard environmental noise, but you were probably there with your thoughts. Then the dawn of the Walkman to the iPod to our cell phones with streaming music and podcasts and whatnot…now we never ever have to be alone with our thoughts at any place or time. Sounds cool! Until it’s not, and we’re all full of input and incapable of putting in deep focus or work anymore.

There’s a group Newport mentions in his book that call themselves the “attention resistance.” I like that name. I have unknowingly already been doing some of the things they advise. I removed almost all notifications on my phone and keep it on silent all the time in hopes to keep it from being a slot machine that draws my attention away from something nearly every millisecond. Various other options include a 30 day detox from social media (sounds nice but I work with the stuff so I can’t put it away like that) and throwing your phone in a lake (just kidding that’s not in the book).

All this to say…I don’t know the answer but I feel at war with my own mind and my own basic needs for attention and approval. A “Like” is such an easy way to give attention and receive it, but it’s empty and hollow in the long run. A constant quest for likes will kill deep work and thought and connection.

So what am I doing about it? Good question…I just read the book, so I haven’t really made a plan yet. I AM writing this long form blog post, though…which feels like a step. I am going to try to make Facebook useful for the tool it is (telling nice people who want to know what I am up to and where the gigs are) but it feels like a betrayal to type at you this hard about these things and then ask that you go follow me on Facebook, doesn’t it? So the great balancing act continues…continue using the tools we have to connect ourselves to each other without losing the cool parts about why we want to connect in the first place.

And onward we go, into the brave new world.

“Reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays.” ― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

1 Response to Digital Minimalism / Digital Necessity


Michael O’Connor

May 14th, 2019 at 2:18 pm

Great one!

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