The Curmudgeonly Optimist
People are sometimes confused about my personal relationship with digital communication technologies.
On the one hand, I’m a computer scientist who studies and improves these tools. As you might therefore expect, I’m incredibly optimistic about the role of computing and networks in our future.
On the other hand, as a writer I’m often pointing out my dissatisfaction with certain developments of the Internet Era. I’m critical, for example, of our culture’s increasingly Orwellian allegiance to social media and am indifferent to my smartphone.
Recently, I’ve been trying to clarify the underlying philosophy that informs how I think about the role of these technologies in our personal lives (their role in the world of work is a distinct issue that I ‘ve already written quite a bit about). My thinking in this direction is still early, but I decided it might be a useful exercise to share some tentative thoughts, many of which seem to be orbiting a concept that I’ve taken to calling digital minimalism.
The Minimalism Movement
To understand what I mean by digital minimalism it’s important to first understand the existing community from which it takes its name.
The modern minimalism movement is led by a loose collection of bloggers, podcasters, and writers who advocate a simpler life in which you focus on a small number of things that return the most meaning and value — often at the expense of many activities and items we’re told we’re supposed to crave.
Minimalists tend to spend much less money and own many fewer things than their peers. They also tend to be much more intentional and often quite radical in shaping their lives around things that matter to them.
Here’s how my friends Joshua and Ryan (aka, The Minimalists) describe the movement:
Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.
(For some excellent examples of minimalism blogs, I recommend: The Minimalists, Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, Tammy Strobel, the Frugalwoods and Mr. Money Moustache. See also Joshua and Ryan’s sharp documentary on the topic now streaming on Netflix.)
These ideas, of course, are not new. The minimalism movement can be directly connected to similar ideals in many other periods, from the voluntary simplicity trend of the 1970s to Thoreau. But what is new is their embrace of tools like blogs that help them reach vast audiences.
I first encountered this movement through Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits blog about a decade ago. This was the early days of Study Hacks and these sources soon played a major role in transforming my writing and speaking during this period. Most notably, they shifted my attention away from the technical aspects of studying and toward the philosophical aspects of creating a meaningful student experience (the Zen Valedictorian, for example, owes an obvious debt to Zen Habits).
It occurred to me recently, when I was pondering my philosophy on technology, that my thinking continues to be influenced by minimalism. I am, I realized, perhaps usefully described as an advocate for a new but urgently relevant branch of this philosophy — a branch focused on the proper role of digital communication technologies in our increasingly noisy lives…
Adapting some of the above language from Joshua and Ryan, I loosely define digital minimalism as follows:
Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.
To be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life, but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.
Here’s a preliminary list of some core principles of digital minimalism…
- Missing out is not negative. Many digital maximalists, who spend their days immersed in a dreary slog of apps and clicks, justify their behavior by listing all of the potential benefits they would miss if they began culling services from their life. I don’t buy this argument. There’s an infinite selection of activities in the world that might bring some value. If you insist on labeling every activity avoided as value lost, then no matter how frantically you fill your time, it’s unavoidable that the final tally of your daily experience will be infinitely negative. It’s more sensical to instead measure the value gained by the activities you do embrace and then attempt to maximize this positive value.
- Less can be more. A natural consequence of the preceding principle is that you should avoid wasting your limited time and attention on low-value online activities, and instead focus on the much smaller number of activities that return the most value for your life. This is a basic 80/20 analysis: doing less, but focusing on higher quality, can generate more total value.
- Start from first principles. Digital maximalists tend to accept any online activity that conceivably offers some value. As most such activities can offer you something (few people would write an app or launch a web site with no obvious purpose) this filter is essentially meaningless. A more productive approach is to start by identifying the principles that you as a human find most important — the foundation on which you hope to build a good life. Once identified, you can use these principles as a more effective filter by asking the following question of a given activity: will this add significant value to something I find to be significantly important to my life?
- The best is different than the rest. Assume a given online activity generates a positive response to the question from the preceding principle. This is not enough. You should then follow up by asking: is this activity “the best” way to add value to this area of my life? For a given core principle, there may be many activities that can offer some relevant value, but you should focus on finding the small number of activities that offer the most such value. The difference between the “best” and “good enough” in this context can be significant. For example, someone recently told me that she uses Twitter because she values being exposed to diverse news sources (she cited, in particular, how major newspapers were ignoring aspects of the Dakota pipeline protests). I don’t doubt that Twitter can help support this important principle of being informed, but is a Twitter feed really the best use of all the Internet has to offer to achieve this goal?
- Digital clutter is stressful. The traditional minimalists correctly noted that living among lots of physical clutter is stressful. The same is true of your online life. Incessant clicking and scrolling generates a background hum of anxiety. Drastically reducing the number of thing you do in your digital life can by itself have a significant calming impact. This value should not be underestimated.
- Attention is scarce and fragile. You have a finite amount of attention to expend each day. If aimed carefully, your attention can bring you great meaning and satisfaction. At the same time, however, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested into companies whose sole purpose is to hijack as much of your attention as possible and push it toward targets optimized to create value for a small number of people in Northern California. This is scary and demands diligence on your part. As I’ve written before, this is my main concern with large attention economy conglomerates like Twitter and Facebook: it’s not that they’re worthless, but instead it’s the fact that they’re engineered to be as addictive as possible.
- Many of the best uses of the online world support better living offline. We’re not evolved for digital life, which is why binges of online activities often leave us in a confused state of strung out exhaustion. This explains why many of the highest return online activities are those that take advantage of the Internet to improve important aspects of your offline life. Digital networks, for example, can help you find or form a community that resonates with you, but the real value often comes when you put down your phone and go out and engage with this new community IRL.
- Be wary of tools that solve a problem that didn’t exist before the tool. GPS helped solve a problem that existed for a long time before it came along (how do I get where I want to go?), so did Google (how do I find this piece of information I need?). Snapchat, by contrast, did not. Be wary of tools in this latter category as they tend to exist mainly to create addictive new behaviors that support ad sales.
- Activity trumps passivity. Humans, deep down, are craftsmen. We find great satisfaction in creating something valuable that didn’t exist before. Some of the most fulfilling online activities, therefore, are those that involve you creating things, as oppose to simply consuming. I’m yet to meet someone who feels exhilarated after an evening of trawling clickbait, yet I know many who do feel that way after committing a key module to an open source repository.
The above list, and much of the thinking behind it, is still tentative. I should also emphasize again that it applies almost exclusively to the role of digital technology in your personal life, and is largely distinct from my thinking about how to integrate technologies productively in the professional sphere.
But there’s something coherent lurking in the background here that I will continue to work through.
Digital minimalism, for example, has helped me better understand some of the decisions I’ve made in my own online life (such as my embrace of blogging and rejection of major social media platforms), while at the same time challenging me with areas where I could be leveraging new technologies to even better support some of my core principles. In other words, like any productive philosophy, it gives me both clarity and homework.
The bottom line of this general thinking is that a simple, carefully curated, minimalist digital life is not a rejection of technology or a reactionary act of skepticism; it is, by contrast, an embrace of the immense value these new tools can offer…if we’re willing to do the hard work of figuring out how to best leverage them on behalf of the things we truly care about.
(Photo by Loren Kerns)