The Limitations of Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalism is an attempt to tackle something that I think almost everyone today can sympathise with; how much time social media and big tech suck out of our lives.

Love it or hate it, no one can deny the fundamental presence of big tech in our modern lives.

If you’re one of the people who has shifted over time from off-handed comments about how much time we spend on social media, to becoming legitimately concerned that it is negatively affecting other aspects of your life, then you’re not alone.

My Relationship with FaceBook

I ‘quit’ Facebook in 2015, before it was cool, which I now realise was like 4 years ago… so that feels awesome to say. But to say that I quit, doesn’t really capture the experience for me.

For me it really wasn’t difficult. I have no memory of missing a single aspect of Facebook.

I quickly became disillusioned to the presence of Facebook in my life, around about the time the fun quizzes and stuff you used to do went out of fashion. As soon as it stopped being this fun new toy I started questioning its usefulness.

So I didn’t really quit Facebook, I just stopped using it.


Cal Newport

People look at you like you’re weird because you don’t have social media, but when you actually step back and look from the outside you realise no, I’m not weird. Spending hours of your time staring at your smart phone, instead of enjoying life is what’s weird… that’s so weird. – Cal Newport

So one of my all time favourite bloggers, Cal Newport has just released his latest book, Digital Minimalism.

The fruit of many years of research and thinking, Cal’s basic premise is simple…

Own your digital life; don’t let it own you.

If you’re not sold yet, then checkout his podcast with Brett Mackay over at the Art of Manliness. It is outstanding and only goes for an hour; significantly less than the time it takes to read the book. I highly recommend it.

Cal and Brett discuss a variety of interesting topics, including especially people’s increasing feelings of dissatisfaction with their use of social media.

Cal’s solution is becoming more intentional about your use of social media, and digital technology in general, in a way that benefits you, and puts you in control, rather than living your digital life at the mercy of your notifications list.

I just have a few thoughts that I wanted to get out which despite Cal’s thesis, I suspect he agrees with, and maybe secretly hopes people will realise.

The attention economy

Cal addressed the problem early on, and made a compelling case for the fact that over time, the fundamental purpose of these social media outlets has increasingly centred on the attention economy.

He argues that the smart phone was never originally intended to become the source of constant distraction that it is today.

Facebook is designed primarily to grab your attention, keep it as long as possible, and engage in a two-way transfer of information between your personal usage data, and the advertising companies (including Facebook itself).

Facebook mines individuals for every possible piece of information about you that it can get its hands on. These companies then leverage this data to provide you with extremely targeted advertising, not just in terms of what you can buy, but what appears in your content feeds too.

One of the biggest turn offs for me early on, was when I started to feel like about the only thing I was ever seeing on Facebook was political commentary.

The Real Challenge of Taking Control

Now, the fundamental thrust of Cal’s book is that we need to unplug from the soul crushing addictiveness of these outlets.

For many, social media sucks the time and satisfaction from most of our spare time (and a good portion of our work and family time too).

One solution is to systematically assess where we derive the most value from this technology, then intentionally and aggressively construct our digital experience around only those activities which provide the most value.

This is in many ways a common sense approach. If it were not for the insidiousness of the technologies this would be exactly what we probably would do by default. The reason we don’t however, is precisely because they have figured out how to hijack our attention, and direct it towards completely arbitrary activities.

There is a wealth of research on these techniques, but I am confident that few would need to be really convinced of their effectiveness. For most people it’s a simple matter of taking a look around, and seeing the world we live in. Almost everyone… everywhere… staring at our screens. It’s hardly controversial.

And yet therein lies the problem.

I totally understand where Cal is coming from. What the whole digital minimalist philosophy overlooks, though, I think is the fact that you will always be fighting a battle with these technologies to overcome the power they have over your life. A battle which I’ve long thought, simply is not worth it. Whatever value you’re getting from social media services (or think you’re getting), it cannot be worth the time you lose in the real world.

I see at least these major problems with maintaining a presence on social media, regardless of any value that it provides.

  1. Your attention
  2. Your personal autonomy
  3. Social media’s true purpose

Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

1. Your attention is at stake.

“God only knows what it [Facebook] is doing to our children’s brains,” – Sean Parker, founder of Napster, for Facebook investor

Every minute you spend on these services, they are harvesting your personal usage data to improve both their attention grabbing pull on you, and to improve the sophistication of their advertising and content producing engines.

The reason that Digital Minimalism requires such intentionality, and extreme measures such as a 30 day detox, is because of the sheer power of these technologies to traffic your attention.

These companies have expended exorbitant amounts of money learning how to harness your attention, almost against your will, and they’re experts at it.

Any attempt to seriously incorporate Digital minimalism into your life on your terms requires going head-to-head against decades of time, and millions of dollars worth of research into software which is specifically designed to beat you at your own game.

As the saying goes – the house, always wins.

2. Your personal autonomy is at stake.

When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask: “what’s not on the menu?” [or] “why am I being given these options and not others?” – Tristan Harris, founder of Time Well Spent and former Google design ethicist

It doesn’t matter what you do.

It doesn’t matter how you structure your profile.

It doesn’t matter how you tweak any other metric that’s at your disposal to tweak.

These technologies are systematically working to filter your experience through the lens of your personal data.

No matter how much you fight it, these technologies are customising your content to what they think it wants you to see.

As Cal pointed out in the podcast, these technologies are engineered to push you into the most extreme version of yourself. You’re literally fighting a losing battle for your own personal identity and autonomy, all in the name of better targeted advertising.

3. Social media’s true purpose.

Whatever benefit you think you’re deriving from these services, you’re fighting a constant battle to maintain self-control over your use of them.

Make no mistake. This is no longer the meandering of a few paranoid doomsday naysayers. This is the harsh, lived reality for most people today using social media, and is verified by comments of those on the inside, like Tristan Harris, who know exactly the techniques used.

But this is no coincidence. There is an important reason for why Big tech invests billions of dollars on hacking the attention centres of your brain… because it is a commodity. This brings us to our last point.

Facebook is not a Social Media technology. It is an advertising technology. You think that Facebook is a social media service that allows you to communicate with your peers. You think you’re a customer, taking advantage of the free service that Facebook provides.

But you’re not a customer, you’re the product.

Consider a related example. If you read through the Qantas Frequent Flyer terms and conditions, it states in no uncertain terms, that the Qantas Frequent Flyer program is not a customer service program.

It is designed to collect user data, for the purpose of optimising their marketing strategy (and also sell your data to other private companies, including spammers!).

rewards programs exist primarily to collect your personal data
your soul – the hidden cost of free stuff

Whatever social benefits you may derive from Facebook, it is merely a front for Facebook’s true purpose which is advertising.

To embrace digital minimalism, as a personal philosophy, is a matter of convincing yourself that the amount of effort required, is worth the perceived benefits.

I cannot imagine that anything social media has to offer, cannot be gained in some other way.

And that is why, I think, digital minimalism is only the first step to eventually giving up on social media altogether. The goal is learning to use technology the way it was always meant to be used, for our benefit, not our enslavement.