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June 04, 2019 Tuesday 01:14:57 PM IST

Say Hi to Digital Minimalism


People are distressed at the way the new technologies are draining the meaning and satisfaction derived from the time spent at work as well as home. Cal Newport, a computer scientist, in his latest book, Digital Minimalism (2019), delves deep into the fault lines of this digital phenomenon. The first part of his book is an enquiry into ‘A Distressing Collection of Concerns’ and the second part, ‘A Collection of Correct Practices’ to redress the damage done by the tech world. This process of intentional, focused living needs deep awareness and ruthless resolve.

Distress signals from a hyper-connected existence include behaviouraladdiction. What is the single biggest factor shaping our lives today? The answer is ‘our screens’. We are increasingly tempted to be glued to our screens and they dictate how we behave, and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable.

Behavioural addictions

Scientific studies on the use of technology have brought out two factors: (1) Our new technologies are particularly suited to foster behavioural addictions.(2) In many cases, the addictive properties of new technologies are not accidents; they are carefully engineered design features. (Adam Alter, 2017).

Two of the most important and intriguing features of this addiction are: (1) Intermittent positive reinforcement hook. Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business. These bright dings of pseudo pleasure and the anticipated excitement make the whole activity of posting and checking, maddeningly appealing. Every appealing headline clicked or intriguing link tabbed is another metaphorical pull of the ‘slot machine handle’.  (2) Drive for social approval. Attention engineering industry has become adept in exploiting this instinct for social approval. They keep on improving their technologies so that they can significantly increase thequantity of addictive nuggets of social approval; in other words, intermittent ‘dopamine hits’.

Compulsive use of these modern technologies is no result of a character flaw; it is the realization of a massively profitable business plan. We didn’t sign up for the digital lives that we now lead. Instead, they were, to a large extent, crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors.

Loss of autonomy

This irresistible attraction to screens is leading people to feel as though they are ceding more and more of their autonomy when it comes to deciding how they direct their attention. No one of course, signed up for this loss of control. People join Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the globe and then end up being unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table. Many a person is tired of the situation, having a feeling that they have become a slave to their devices.


A common term often heard about modern digital life is ‘exhaustion’. The issue is the overall impact of so many shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood. As mentioned earlier, these tools have a way of cultivating behaviour addictions. The urge to check twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life. When parents bring in their child for counselling, they focus on symptoms such as exhaustion, without knowing the root cause of these problems which is often the hyper-connected cyber (underground) life of their wards.

Dehumanizing effects

It was Andrew Sullivan, the influential blogger and commentator, who wrote an essay in New York magazine (2016) titled ‘I Used to be a Human Being’. Its subtitle was more alarming: ‘An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you too’. But if you look closer, the media manipulation is much worse. In an open marketplace of attention, darker emotions attract more eye balls than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity - a steep price that many don’t even realize they are paying to support their compulsive connectivity. Add to this the famous quote by Bill Maher, “Philip Morris just wanted your lungs, the App store wants your soul. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”  (Bill Maher, 2017)

Encountering the above-mentioned distressing collection of digital concerns opens our eyes to the gravity of the situation that technology has thrust upon us. Cal Newport is the advocate of a new philosophy of technology use, and he calls it ‘Digital Minimalism.’

The effectiveness of this philosophy rests on three core principles:(1)  Clutter is costly; (2) Optimization is important; (3) Intentionality is satisfying.The ‘Digital Declutter’process includes three steps: (1) Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life;(2) During this 30-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful; (3) At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life.

Some salutary practices

 (1) Value and practice solitude.“Solitude is a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds”. (2)  Take Long walks.On a regular basis go for long walks, alone, which means even without your phone. (3)  Don’t click ‘ Like’.You will not use social media as a tool for low quality relationship nudges. (4) Reclaim Conversation (Sherry Turkle, 2015).Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we do. Conversation is much more than little tweets and sips of online connection. Let us reclaim conversation-centric communication. (5). Reclaim Leisure, high quality and low quality.Digital Minimalism provides a detailed plan and practice of ‘Attention Resistant Movement.’

Declaring freedom from your smart phone is probably the most serious step you can take towards embracing ‘Attention Resistance’. To come out on the winning side of this battle, one requires both preparation and ruthless commitment. Then we will be able to say, “Because of technology, I am a better human being than I ever was before”.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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