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.

 

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“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.

 

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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

 

 

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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“This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal — pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation — is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?”  – Ten Arguments…. by Jaron Lanier

Inventor of virtual reality and Microsoft scientist Jaron Lanier, whom I’ve written about before (You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?) encourages us to embrace the internet but warns that social media has become so toxic it is making us unhappy, degrading the social fabric, and threatening our democracy.

He suggests we delete our Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts – not permanently, but long enough to break our addiction. When we’re ready, we can reconnect with social media in a wiser, more detached (less hysterical) way. We should be like cats, he says. When it comes to social media, the best attitude is: take it or leave it.

Specifically, Jaron Lanier would like to see young people who have never experienced life without social media make a complete break for six months. “Get to know yourself”  without the constant distraction and manipulation of social media, Lanier said in a recent interview. “Then, come back and re-engage.”

As for the rest of us, Lanier hopes some of us will disengage so that we can bring a different, more objective perspective to the conversation about the good and ill effects of social media.

The onus isn’t just on us, though; Lanier has been saying ever more urgently that we need a business model different from the current one, in which a few tremendously powerful companies serve advertisers and not us. I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Geniuses that they are, Mark Zuckerberg and others are in over their heads and maybe not even sufficiently concerned. (Read this chilling op-ed, “The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley.”

Reviewers have cited Lanier’s first argument as perhaps his most important:

“Argument #1: You are losing your free will

WELCOME TO THE CAGE THAT GOES EVERYWHERE WITH YOU

Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smartphone on their person all the time that’s suitable for algorithmic behavior modification. A lot of us are also using related devices called smart speakers on our kitchen counters or in our car dashboards. We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.

Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second. What kinds of links do you click on? What videos do you watch all the way through? How quickly are you moving from one thing to the next? Where are you when you do these things? Who are you connecting with in person and online? What facial expressions do you make? How does your skin tone change in different situations? What were you doing just before you decided to buy something or not? Whether to vote or not?”

Here are two provocative examples of social media manipulation Lanier cites:

“A lot of potential Hillary voters were infused with a not-great feeling about Hillary, or about voting at all. Were you one of them? If so, please think back. Were you seeing any information customized for you before the election? Did you use Twitter or Facebook? Did you do a lot of online searches? You were had. You were tricked. Your best intentions were turned against you.”

And….

“After a dramatic series of awful killings of unarmed black citizens by police in the United States, the initial reaction from sympathetic social media users was for the most part wise, stoic, and constructive. It must be said that we might not even have heard much about these killings, their prevalence, or their similarities without social media.

….But…..behind the scenes, a deeper, more influential power game was gearing up. The game that mattered most was out of sight, occurring in algorithmic machinery in huge hidden data centers around the world.

Black activists and sympathizers were carefully catalogued and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER*? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.

A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain…..racism became organized over BUMMER to a degree it had not been in generations.”

(*BUMMER is a cumbersome Lanier acronym, “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.)

“Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.” – Jaron Lanier

 

“I hope, dearly, that our times will be remembered as a momentary glitch in a previously smooth progression toward a more democratic world.

But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis….. the general thinking was that once a country went democratic, it not only stayed that way but would become ever more democratic, because its people would demand that.

Unfortunately, that stopped being true, and only recently. Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”

I subscribe to The Poynter Institute’s newsletter, and in it a recent public opinion survey was cited that seems to bear this out: a plurality of Republicans, and even some Democrats and Independents, think Trump should be given the power to shut down certain media outlets. Forty-eight percent of Republicans in the survey believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”

Whether or not we agree with Jaron Lanier, I think engaged citizens need to cultivate a new kind of literacy: an awareness of how social media works and how non-human algorithms are changing our beliefs, behavior, and culture.

And, by the way, Lanier believes the President of the United States is addicted to Twitter.

When I was on a recent hike in the remote foothills of the high desert, someone pointed out the Facebook data center below us – one of the hidden data centers Lanier speaks of in an excerpt above. It is massive, windowless, and heavily guarded.

In a recent interview, Lanier spoke about the challenges that have crept up on us in the digital age: “The solution is to double down on being human,” he said.

If you’re not up for reading Ten Arguments…., you can find excellent interviews with Lanier about his book online.

(When I review a book, I often thank the author for writing it, usually on Twitter. I can’t thank Lanier in this way because he has no social media accounts.)

How do you feel about social media? We have a great discussion going in the comments. Please tell us what you think.

Next: Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain, a novel about the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (one of those notorious “enemies of the American people”)

Go Set a Watchman: What do publishers and book bloggers owe their readers?

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“To those whose bubble was burst about Atticus, well, Santa Claus was really our parents, Bill Cosby wasn’t really Bill Cosby, and Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s get over it and get real about racism. How can we fix it otherwise?” Wally Lamb

“It’s being sent to us as a gift. It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Nikky Finney

I don’t have insider information about the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. I know only what I’ve learned from the articles and opinion pieces I’ve read since the book came out a few weeks ago.

I’ve chosen to trust Harper Lee’s biographer, Marja Mills, who doubts that Lee would have wanted Go Set a Watchman published if she were fully functioning. Harper Lee had a stroke a few years ago and currently resides in a nursing home, where a guard posted at the door maintains a list of people who are allowed to visit her. Some have questioned whether Harper Lee is capable of making informed publishing decisions, especially since she maintained for decades that no further books by her were forthcoming.

Go Set a Watchman was the initial draft of what would be transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was problematic because it was a draft written by a novice writer learning her craft, though Harper Lee’s editor saw the talent and potential behind it. What’s more, the Atticus Finch portrayed in this first draft was not the iconic hero America went on to embrace. He was an Atticus Finch that perhaps American readers were not ready for. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, mentored and guided Harper as she crafted quite a different story, the one that became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fast forward many decades. After Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, died (Alice was a lawyer who looked after Harper’s estate and protected her interests), Harper’s new estate lawyer and the publisher HarperCollins spearheaded the publication of the initial manuscript, the one Harper Lee had originally called Go Set a Watchman.  

The manuscript was lightly copy edited, but no substantive editing was done. Any revisions, of course, would have required consultations with Harper Lee and perhaps some rewriting on her part, which many believe she cannot do since she is nearly deaf and blind and may be otherwise incapacitated.

HarperCollins has marketed the book as another, newly found novel by Harper Lee.

I’ll save my opinions about the literary quality and content of Watchman for my next post. Here, I want to say how disappointed I am in HarperCollins and the current big business model of book publishing. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has been called a money grab on the part of a publisher capitalizing on Harper Lee’s name and reputation. I agree with that assessment.

Back in the day, I started my career as a book editor in educational publishing, and I’ve been told by a friend who has remained in the business that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d stayed. Books must rake in the profits. Literary and other books with less popular appeal are often not supported or even published in the first place, regardless of their artistic merit. Fortunately, independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors are filling the gap to some extent; many are committed to producing literary works of art regardless of their profit potential.

I believe, too, that the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.

What if the unedited first drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood were published and marketed as new novels? Might our opinions of them as writers change?

Writers, sculptors, painters and other artists have a right to their first drafts, their initial conceptions, their trial and error efforts, and they have the right to keep this work to themselves or at least have it viewed in context.

I’ve been disappointed by a couple of bloggers and social media bibliophiles I’ve read, who seem to have no knowledge of the controversy and circumstances behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and little understanding of or interest in book editing, authorship, and responsible publishing. They are providing no context for their readers.

In one case, a book lover on Instagram with many followers heaped nothing but vitriol on Harper Lee. He claimed that she “knows nothing” about race – a serious misreading of her – and seemed to not take into account that Go Set a Watchman is a dated first draft written by a young writer in the 1950s. Many of this Instagram-er’s readers thanked him for steering them away from the book and seemed to take his indictment of Harper Lee at face value.

I unfollowed him.

Sometimes I’m ambivalent about being a book blogger, though most of the time I believe blogging is valuable. I was educated as a journalist, I was a book editor for a highly regarded book publisher that produced quality work, and I was paid for the editing and writing I did, with the expectation that I’d maintain the highest standards.

As bloggers, we can write whatever we want, with no one to fact check or edit our work. That’s the beauty of it – no gatekeepers, the opportunity to express ourselves, explore our passions, and share them with others. But there is a down side, too.

All of this said, I believe the publication of Go Set a Watchman will turn out to be a good thing, as you can likely tell from the opening quotes I’ve chosen. More about that in my next post.

Please share your thoughts about Go Set a Watchman. Should it have been published? And if you’ve read it, what do you think? If you find this post valuable, please share it so more readers can join in the discussion!

Here is a video of Ursula Le Guin talking about books as commodities. I’ve posted this before:

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