Digital Minimalism (cultivating soul after the storm)

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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.

 

DigitalMinimalism“‘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.”

 

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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 [18]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.”

 

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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.

 

WinterSnag

“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.

 

FromHoodoo

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:

Memoir

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

Nonfiction

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

 

 

Who Owns the Future?

Who Owns the Future?.jpg“If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions….People must not be gradually equated with machines if we are to engineer a world that is good for people. We must not allow technological change to be driven by a philosophy in which people aren’t held to be special.” Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

I’m glad I found my way to this book and Jaron Lanier. Although Who Owns the Future? was at times frustrating, perplexing (and even annoying), Lanier’s message is an important one. If you care about where the human race is heading in light of the highly disruptive information revolution that is only speeding up, I encourage you to become familiar with Lanier’s views and think about the issues he raises.

A computer scientist who pioneered virtual reality and a co-founder of start-ups now part of Oracle, Adobe, and Google, Lanier currently works at Microsoft Research on top-secret projects. In Who Owns the Future? he hints at a project involving the manipulation of fault lines in the earth to prevent quakes. Big stuff like that. Lanier is a musician and composer too, and his music has been performed all over the world.

Lanier proposes that we work toward “a humanistic information economy that rewards ordinary people for what they do and share on the web.” (Italics are mine.) If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been reading Wendell Berry, who writes about the displacement of farmers, small business owners and families in rural America by industrial-scale farming. Massive displacement of much broader swaths of society by technology is coming if we don’t make adjustments, and this is what Lanier is concerned about. I see Berry, who is in his 80s, and Lanier, a Gen X’er, as kindred spirits sounding the alarm about our cold, competitive, mechanistic society and its degradation of the human spirit.

Lanier does not think “Luddite” is a derogatory term. He believes the Luddites were onto something.

Technology has made it increasingly difficult to earn a living in music, photography, publishing, and journalism. Lanier warns that this could eventually be the case in manufacturing, medicine (robots performing surgery and caring for the elderly are two examples) and other mainstream fields. He predicts the middle class will continue to hollow out, with money and power concentrating among “Siren Servers” such as Facebook and Google, financial and insurance companies, national security agencies, and other powerful corporations that gather vast amounts of data for free and profit enormously by it. If the middle class implodes, so will the Siren Servers and everything else.

“A Siren Server…is an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry. It is the winner of an all-or-nothing contest, and it inflicts smaller all-or-nothing contests on those who interact with it.

Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.

The plan will always eventually backfire, because the rest of the world cannot indefinitely absorb the increased risk, cost, and waste dispersed by a Siren Server.”

Lanier gives an example that is close to home. As Kodak, headquartered in my city, downsized nearly its entire workforce of 140,000 employees, Instagram arose, a social media giant where amateur and professional photographers post their photos for free. I love Instagram; I post photos there often. At the time of its founding, Instagram employed thirteen people.

A few other personal examples: 1. I have a loved one in photography. He and his colleagues are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living. 2. My brother was laid off from his city’s newspaper as it hemorrhaged journalists and printing staff. 3. The house and shop where I grew up became worthless nearly overnight because of the mortgage crisis in 2008; Lanier says the housing crisis came about, in part, because of high-speed, networked financial transactions.

To make a long, complicated book short, Lanier believes people should be paid micro-royalties for the information they give away for free on the internet. It wouldn’t be difficult to make this possible from a technology standpoint, and Lanier delves into the accounting aspects, too, which I skimmed over. These micro-payments could be a viable way for people to earn a living, as they are reimbursed for the value they now provide for free. I can’t help but think of Henrietta Lacks, who was never given a cent for her “immortal” cells; they have been replicated around the world and have contributed enormously to medical research.

Lanier admits that, like many other Silicon Valley techies, he bought into the utopian vision of how wonderful it would be when information flowed freely to everyone on the Internet. Years ago, I drank the Kool-Aid, too, though grudgingly, because I’d made a living at writing. I have not been overjoyed to see writers go unpaid. Lanier contends that the rewards we get–such as free services like Facebook and WordPress for blogs such as this one–are not, ultimately, enough remuneration for what we’re contributing. Universal health insurance and other social fixes, if they ever come about, will not be enough.

Many disagree with Lanier, but my gut tells me he’s right. I find his message liberating. If, for example, I publish a quality memoir, I don’t want to give it away for 99 cents, or for free. I really don’t.

If I choose to have my DNA analyzed, what will be done with this unique, precious, and sensitive data now owned by some company?

I don’t want to spend hours in front of a screen, either, as so many of us do now, while Amazon and Facebook grow rich from the data we give away. This is no way to live. For a variety of reasons, I find myself trying to cut back on screen time; I’d rather be hiking or gardening or otherwise living my life out in the world.

“When enough people lack economic dignity, there’s no way for the economy overall to function well. ….Some decades from now all those idealistic people who contributed to open software or Wikipedia will be in the same position as today’s aging jazz musicians….In a humanistic information economy, as people age, they will collect royalties on value they brought into the world when they were younger. This seems to me a highly moral use of information technology. It remembers the right data. The very idea that our world is construed in such a way that the lifetime contributions of hardworking, creative people can be forgotten, that they can be sent perpetually back to the starting gate, is a deep injustice.

Putting it that way makes the complaint sound leftist. But today there’s also an erasure of what should be legitimate capital. The right should be just as outraged. The proposal here is not redistributionist or socialist. Royalties based on creative contributions from a whole lifetime would always be flowing freshly. It would be wealth earned, not entitlement.”

In Who Owns the Future? Lanier sometimes used terms and references new to me. Techies and younger folks will probably have an easier time, and there is a glossary that’s helpful. Lanier’s style and syntax are different, too, but I persisted, because I’m intrigued by how we might work toward a future that is ethical, human-centered, and filled with meaning. What I found dispiriting was his statements about baby boomers. If Lanier’s vision comes to fruition, he predicts it will not be until we have come and gone. That may be true, but the way he expresses this seems insensitive to his boomer readers. I hope to engage online for many years; Lanier implies this will be a largely unremunerated one-way street for my generation.

Lanier devotes a short section to the future of books, too. He offers a mixed outlook, but I’m encouraged by his conclusion. I won’t give it away here.

“My hope for the future is that it will be more radically wonderful, and unendingly so, than we can now imagine, but also that it will unfold in a lucid enough way that people can learn lessons and be willful. Our story should unfold unbroken by perceived singularities or other breaches of continuity. Whatever it is people will become as technology gets very good, they will still be people if these simple qualities hold.”

Do you agree with Jaron Lanier?

 

 

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