Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.

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17 Comments

  1. I’m on the long list for the book at the library—I hope it is better than Deep Work. I couldn’t get through that one, maybe because it felt slanted to white, techy men.

    I’m listening to How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell—so far it is fairly good with some esoteric portions that I’ve had to skip ahead through. But a similar vein.

    • I remember liking Deep Work but not much of it has stuck with me. It’s definitely more relevant for jobs like writing or computer programming and less for things like, say, teaching or medicine. I’ve also read Jenny Odell–I like her art projects a lot–also appreciate some of the references in How to Do Nothing (got me to read Thomas Merton).

    • Here’s another vote for Jenny Odell. I love how she weaves together the attention economy, bird-watching, resistance movements, and a thoughtful critique of “back to the land.” It’s dense, and not the easiest to read (the esoteric bits), but so good!

  2. Dear Mr Homegrown: Glad to see you mention Cal Newport’s DIGITAL MINIMALISM. It is a magnificently important book. As for me, Freedom does the trick, usually.

  3. Reading a set of blogs everyday is my downfall. I have an iPhone and a flip phone. The flip phone is for calls. The iPhone was a good sub for when I did not have a laptop. I watched too many kitten videos when I got my new laptop, but I have settle down to blogs and news. Thankfully, I never wanted Etsy and gave up FB.

    When people see me use the smart phone, they want the number, but I refuse to give it out. When I mention my blog, they want to know how to find it. I refuse.

    I love technology, but I have other things to do.

    • I’ve found myself looking at cat videos while there’s a real cat on my lap! That’s when I knew I had a problem. I do appreciate that you check this blog!

  4. I have started using the screen time function on my iPhone to cut me off at 8:00pm. My goal is to eventually get it to 6:00. I’m still throwing a tantrum at 8:00. Turns out I do A LOT of random searches after 8:00. But little by little, I am determined to return to being a person who can just sit and read books.

    • I tried that but ended up circumventing the screen function all the time. Stopping the random searches, in the past few days, seems to have restored some of my ability to focus. The problem with the searches is that they would start with some small question that would then lead to hours of mindless surfing.

  5. Your woodworking furniture projects are spectacular and so beautifully made. Hats off to you. Once in a while I click through my massive amounts of email to check in on excellent blogs such as yours. See you soon and keep up the fantastic woodwork.

  6. There is a theory that, no matter where you start off from when searching on Wikipedia, one interesting thing will lead to another and you will eventually end up at The History of the Papacy. Despite what I have read, I do not believe that this is the result of a cunning Jesuit plot ☺

  7. This is the post I needed. I have recently decided to make my own clothes. I have the skills, I have all the materials from years of hoarding, and I have the time…except when I go online to see how OTHER people have made the clothes that I’m planning to make. Same with my garden. And all the home improvement stuff. Why go deal with my own rotting window frames when I can watch someone build a breakfast cubby? I’ll still do my weekly Root Simple read (my son waits for the cat-related posts), and I can’t give up the podcasts and music I listen to while working, but the Social Media and brainless searching…a break and reset sounds perfect. I’ll give that book a go too.

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