Reading Cal Newport’s books is mild masochism for me. I feel judged (and found wanting) by them, though I readily admit that this says more about me than Newport himself. I find him sort of insufferable and smug, and it was rather appalling when I reached a moment in Digital Minimalism when I realized that my reaction to Newport’s latest thesis is not dissimilar to the ridiculous “Marie Kondo hates books” hot takes that went around the internet in January.
Cal Newport is Marie Kondo. But for social media.
It’s all very upsetting, and I have feelings about this which I will now tell you about.
In Digital Minimalism, Newport makes an argument for more thoughtful engagement with the technology that has rapidly taken over our lives. Companies such as Facebook and Google are waging a battle for our attention and intellect. And they’re winning, if the number of times people check their smartphones is anything to go by. Newport argues that it’s well-past time for us to recall that social media (and computers in general) are tools to an end, not an end in themselves.
To some extent, the reasoning is not entirely new: man is a social animal. We have been optimized for social interaction by tens of thousands of years of development. Our minds and bodies respond to subtle nuances in voice and appearance. We are meant to connect face to face, and as fraught as that can be, the more we offload interactions to a virtual realm, the more harm we do to ourselves in the form of rising levels of depression and anxiety. Social media doesn’t make us happy.
Not only this, but we also pay the price in the soft addiction of checking our smartphones constantly. The little habit loops–check Facebook, check texts, check Twitter, refresh email–steal our attention and prohibit us from having moments of solitude and reflection. Facebook, Google, et al. invest heavily in studying how they can get you to spend more time on their apps–their valuation depends on the endless hours of scrolling by billions–and we have all accepted this readily.
Manoush Zomorodi covers a lot of this territory in her recent book, Bored and Brilliant. To combat this, Zomorodi recommends some baby steps to reclaim your time and attention. Turn off notifications: if you don’t see the text message preview pop up, or feel the little buzz in your pocket, you’re less likely to unlock the phone until you’re ready. (I did this and it’s really freeing.)
But Newport goes a step further in his recommendation: he also wants you to take the “social” out of social media. Don’t “like” and don’t comment. (My ten year old heard me saying this to her father and she audibly gasped, “it’s supposed to be social!”)
The problem, Newport argues, is that we treat social media as though it is actually social. As though we have done work to maintain a relationship with our reciprocal likes and comments. We are confusing “communication” with “conversation”, and the distinction between the two is critical. He cites Sherry Turkle’s research that face-to-face conversation is the most human way to interact. The trail of likes does not add up to connection, does not contribute to our mutual well-being in any reasonable way.
And I think we know that. We know that life-on-the-Gram is not “real” life. We bemoan it often enough. Paradoxically, many would defend the depth of relationships and community that exist only online.
Newport knows that we probably aren’t going to quit social media altogether. He thinks we should, but he knows that you and I are lazy addicts. But he does offer some great suggestions for how to negotiate our relationship with these tools so that they serve us rather than us being slaves to them.
For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.
One of the keys to winning this battle is not only to learn to be the boss of your life online, but also to cultivate a life offline. Find something else to pursue in the hours you once spent online. Talk to your family. Take up orienteering. Volunteer at a local community organization. Meet your neighbors. (Honestly, this is a little like becoming a parent. After a while in the thick of it, you wonder how you spent all that time before it was consumed by this new priority.)
Truly, there is very little I would quibble with Newport about in this book. I agree with every part of his argument. While I’m probably not going to adhere to all of his recommendations–I’m not ready to give up Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp yet–I found it thought-provoking. As I watch my daughter leap to grasp her iPod Touch whenever she hears the text notification bell, I see that a reckoning is coming. We’re going to have to find healthier ways to engage technology because it’s not going anywhere.