Our first winter living in the woods, the biggest February snowstorm in 118 years hit central Oregon. Our snow blower had no gas. The snow was up to my waist. We walked (if you could call it that), wearing waterproof leggings. Being forced to slow down, we observed things, such as small pockets of blue light in the snow from animal tracks and other indentations.
“‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.’ [Thoreau]
Our current relationship with the technologies of our hyper-connected world is unsustainable and is leading us closer to the quiet desperation that Thoreau observed so many years ago.” Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
“Solitude deprivation: a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
Just before our big snowstorm, I’d picked up a copy of Digital Minimalism on hold at the library. A few days before that, I’d finally found my way into an antique bookshop in town, where I bought a treasure I’ll share with you below. So I had plenty of reading handy once the snow began to fall and we hunkered down to stay warm. Given our circumstances, digital minimalism was an appropriate topic.
At the moment, I’m part-way through Cal Newport’s 30-day digital declutter. For me, this includes:
- Staying off Facebook and Instagram; leaving no “likes,” or comments, nor looking for any
- Scheduling internet time (not a lot) in advance, on my computer and not my smartphone
- Deleting most smartphone apps
- Writing first drafts – and some revisions – by hand, on paper. Writers are at a disadvantage, because they write with computers, gateways to distraction.
Ultimately, Digital Minimalism isn’t about deprivation, but about enrichment. Cal Newport offers a vision of how those of us who might be struggling with the digital world (count me in), especially social media, can rethink our relationship with the internet in a way that is both wise and empowering.
Newport is a young computer scientist and thought leader helping to usher in a more considered, evolved era of digital literacy. (I loved his book, Deep Work.) What he has to say largely supports Jaron Lanier, another thought leader who has called for a more humanitarian digital culture.
Digital minimalism is not a diet, a detox, or a digital sabbath in which you spend a set amount of time away from your smartphone and other digital devices, only to return to the status quo. Integral to Newport’s “digital decluttering” is adopting new, life-enhancing practices as you selectively cut back digital interactions.
This means cultivating a new skill, deepening a creative practice, or engaging in the pursuit of other personally meaningful goals. And maybe ditching your smartphone. (I had no idea, for example, that some young people are buying flip phones – the kind designed for elderly people, with large screens and keyboards!)
Cal suggests we “…prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption,” as “the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested…”
Here’s what you do after your 30-day declutter:
“To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.”
Newport takes his inspiration from Thoreau and Aristotle:
“I call these activities high-quality leisure. The reason that I’m reminding you here of their importance to a well-crafted life – an idea that dates back over two thousand years – is that I’ve become convinced that to successfully tame the problems of our modern digital world, you must both understand and deploy the core insights of this ancient wisdom….
… low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. Erecting barriers against the existential is not new….but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.”
Flower Arrangement Art of Japan by Mary Cokely Wood is “meant to be just an introduction to the simplest rules of the line and design arrangement termed Japanese Floral Art as I was taught it in Japan in the late 90’s before westernization had touched it.” Here are a couple of passages: “…the use of any line in a Japanese floral composition is not a casual one. Though a floral composition has one main line, each line in a composition has a relationship to this main line and to every other line in the composition, whether it is a 1000-stem rice willow or one of the popular three-line arrangements.” And this: “Nothing but practice, constant drill with actual stems, all kinds of stems, will give the necessary training and skill needed in Ikebena….there is no easy short cut to fine eye training in exactness….” Sounds like learning a hard thing and engaging in demanding activity, as Cal Newport suggests, doesn’t it?
“Digital minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
“…we cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad. We require a philosophy that puts our aspirations and values once again in charge of our daily experience, all the while dethroning primal whims and the business models of Silicon Valley from their current dominance of this role.”
In Flower Arrangement Art of Japan, some of the illustrations, dated 1684, were compiled by a priest/floral artist with “the sole purpose of cultivating the Soul.” This, about Containers: “The flower master, living and working with flower arrangement year after year, had a finely developed consciousness of association and suggestiveness, the fitting arrangement for the time and the season. For instance, on a very hot day in summer when the sight and thought of a large expanse of water is cooling and refreshing, a traditional arrangement would be made of water plants, or those growing near the water, in as large a flower basin as possible; the water made part of the picture. In the winter, arrangements are made in erect containers in which the water is seen but is not played up as it is in the summer arrangements.”
I’m finding that digital minimalism is hard work in terms of thought, planning, and evaluation. I don’t miss social media, and I’m wondering if it will be worth bringing back into my life. I’ll let you know how this all turns out for me.
I think that our culture is ready for a digital reset, and I hope that someday digital literacy, in which we do the hard work of picking and choosing how we use the internet and our devices, becomes a basic part of school curricula. In the meantime, it is something beneficial we can do for ourselves.
“To the Japanese, inured to hardship, the sight of pines, twisted, distorted, dwarfed by the elements, clinging with all their might to the rocky face of a cliff, or standing on a windswept ridge silhouetted against the sky, fairly shouted, ‘Never mind the going, just keep on.’ Standing, thus, century after century, evergreens were associated with courage as well as long life. They lived on in spite of elemental rages. They did not merely decorate the landscape. The old floral masters, many of them in their early life had been soldiers, loved evergreens and used them in flower arrangements as well as in their gardens. Evergreens, especially pines, are the great background in Japan, of the scenery, the garden, and the floral art.”
“Digital minimalism definitely does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools…..I’m enthralled by the possibilities of our techno-future. But I’m also convinced that we cannot unlock this potential until we put in the extra effort required to take control of our own digital lives – to confidently decide for ourselves what tools we want to use, for what reasons, and under what conditions. This isn’t reactionary, it’s common sense.”
If you’d like to know more about the devastations of social media and digital overdrive, look online for Anderson Cooper’s interview with former Google product manager Tristan Harris on 60 Minutes.
Bill Maher’s “Social Media Is the New Nicotine” is hard-hitting, but his language (as usual) can be offensive.
At Hoodoo Ski Resort after the storm, with a glimpse of Three-Fingered Jack. A hoodoo is a column or pinnacle of weathered rock. Photo by J. Hallinan.
I’ll end with this by Joseph Campbell, which I found independently of Cal’s book:
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody else owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something will eventually happen.”
Do you use social media? How do you feel about it? Do you feel the need to cut back on your digital distractions? If so, how is that going?
The book gods have been showering me with exceptional riches lately, and plenty of time to read as I adjust to our more rural life. Here’s what’s coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love
Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan Jobs
All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung
The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks
Megan Griswold’s The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia Across Cultures, by T.M. Luhrmann (The research is fascinating; I gained brand new perspectives.)
What I’ve got on hold at the library:
Solitary, by Albert Woodfox (He’s one of the Angola 3, and his life has been a travesty of injustice. This memoir will be BIG.)
Feel Free, by Zadie Smith
Late Migrations, by Margaret Renkl
The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esm Weijun Wang
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells