In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.
The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.
I expected around 40 – 50 people would agree to participate in this admittedly disruptive exercise.
Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.
Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…
Last week, I wrote a blog post emphasizing the distinction between the social internet and social media. The former describes the internet’s ability to enable connection, learning, and expression. The latter describes the attempt of a small number of large companies to monetize these capabilities inside walled-garden, monopoly platforms.
My argument is that you can embrace the social internet without having to become a “gadget” inside the algorithmic attention economy machinations of the social media conglomerates. As noted previously, I think this is the right answer for those who are fed up with the dehumanizing aspects of social media, but are reluctant to give up altogether on the potential of the internet to bring people together.
The key follow up question, of course, is how to fruitfully engage with the social internet outside the convenient confines of social media. In my last post I pointed toward one possibility: the development of open social protocols that support the network effect usefulness of large social networks without a centralized company in charge.
This solution, however, requires that you wait for others to make progress on a somewhat complicated technological agenda.
In this post, I want to discuss two additional approaches that individuals can put in place right now to begin their transition from social media to the social internet.
The first approach provides an intermediate step — a way to minimize the worst effects of social media without fully leaving its ecosystem. The second approach describes a more severe separation.
As someone who has publicly criticized the major social media platforms for years, I’ve become familiar with the common arguments surrounding this topic.
One of the more interesting trends I’ve observed about this conversation is the split reaction to social media I used to hear from the political left before the 2016 election scrambled everything.
This split was defined largely by age.
Younger progressives were fiercely in favor of social media and were often appalled that people like me might say something negative about these services.
I remember one particularly lively radio debate, held on the Canadian equivalent of NPR, in which one of the other guests fought my suggestion that users should perform a personal cost/benefit analysis for these tools by arguing that even discussing this strategy was problematic as it might trick people into not using social media — a self-evident tragedy.
Older progressives, by contrast, were more skeptical of these platforms. This was especially true of tech-savvy activists like Jaron Lanier or Douglas Rushkoff who were connected to earlier techno-utopian movements.
On closer analysis, this gap seemed to stem from how these different cohorts understood social media’s relationship to the internet.
Earlier this week, Stephen Hawking died. It was a sad day for lovers of science.
Hawking’s breakthrough work from 1974 provided the world a new understanding of black holes. It also unified, for the first time, quantum mechanics with gravity — laying the conceptual foundation on which any attempt at a unified theory of physics must build.
There is, however, another important insight to extract from Hawking’s efforts — one that’s less often discussed…
Wu’s piece is both deep and scattered — an indication that the target of his inquiry, the role of “convenience” in shaping the culture and economy of the last century, is both crucial and under-explored.
His thesis begins with the claim that we’ve increasingly oriented our lives around convenience, which has benefits, such as reducing drudgery, but at the same time can leech individuality and character from our lives.
This basic idea is not new. Mid-century writers like Richard Yates were already quite concerned about related issues like suburban conformity.
But Wu distinguishes his analysis by identifying how consumer-oriented companies reacted to the destabilization of the 1960’s counterculture by instead focusing on making the quest for individuality itself more convenient.
Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…
Sebastian: I never left her.
Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?
Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it
Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?
Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.
Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?
Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.
Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.
In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.
One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.
Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.
Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”
He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.
This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)
BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.
Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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