Striving for Digital Minimalism: Why We Need a Human-Centric Approach to Technology

Technology promises to solve our problems, but it also creates new ones. That’s because we have failed to apply human-centric approaches to technology. We think in terms of productivity instead of human flourishing; connectivity instead of community. As a result, our tech use leaves us worse off than we were before—less free, less rested, less peaceful.

Recently, I saw a sign in a local Starbucks advertising the chain’s mobile phone app. It read something like, “Too busy to stand in line? Use our app!”

The premise of such advertising is that technology can automate many of the boring, repetitive tasks in our lives (like ordering coffee), giving us more free time to do what we really want (like write 140-character Twitter posts). Indeed, when the Starbucks app recently went down, customers took the time to voice their frustrations on Twitter. One complained about having to order at the counter “like it’s the dark ages.” Another balked at having to stand in line “like a peasant.”

Phone apps are only one of many technological advances that vendors present as the means to solve our lack of time and energy. Yet, in spite of all the technologies offered to cure our busyness, ours may be the busiest generation in human history. Instead of freeing man, technology has enslaved him, making him not only busier but also more tired and more stressed.

Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, observes and analyzes this dilemma. Newport notes that the sheer number of “shiny baubles” in the digital world overwhelms us, distracting our attention and manipulating our mood. The Internet, our phones, and the many programs and applications on both, create addictions. Indeed, “compulsive use is the foundation for many social media business plans.” People find themselves compulsively checking their phones and Facebook feeds, even in the presence of loved ones. Their emotions follow the curve of their social media popularity. They waste hours of time debating people online whom they will never meet, or with whom they haven’t spoken in years. All told, our digital world “reduce[s] autonomy, decrease[s] happiness, stoke[s] our darker instincts, and distract[s]” us from the things we actually prefer to do.

This is purposeful. During a 2017 interview on 60 Minutes, former Google engineer Tristan Harris acknowledged that Silicon Valley is “programming people.” Technology “is not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money,” Harris told Anderson Cooper. Similarly, Bill Maher has compared Silicon Valley to Big Tobacco: both industries are focused on fostering and then feeding addiction.

“Addiction” is defined as, “A condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.” This accurately describes the way many people—myself included—use our devices. In fact, our culture has developed a whole new set of terms to describe digital addiction: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), Status Anxiety, and so on.

Although automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are billed as time-savers, this claim is deceptive. Certainly, automation can accelerate processes and eliminate the human element in boring, iterative operations. But in a professional setting, this typically just frees us up to do more work. An AI tool that saves you an hour or two of your day—say, automatically tagging, filing, and responding to emails based on keywords—doesn’t mean you can go home earlier. Instead, it means you are given new, shallow, distraction-based tasks to do instead. As John Herrman concludes in his study of automating email, “We can be sure of only one thing that will result from automating email: It will create more of it.”

How Does Technology Change Us?

Too often, technology facilitates a kind of devolution, rather than an evolution. Instead of helping us to develop our intellective, emotional, or relational abilities, much tech has the opposite effect. After using our devices, our ability for contemplation and self-reflection is weakened; our emotions are drawn to the most stimulating material (e.g. click-bait); and our social skills deteriorate as we lose the ability to listen or empathize. The “like” and “share” buttons have become socially acceptable (and sufficient) methods to demonstrate our support for important ideas or movements. Newport cites social evolutionary theory, which illuminates how technology is undermining the abilities and skills that took many generations to develop:

The intricate brain networks . . . evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters, and social groups were small and tribal. The past two decades, by contrast, are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools . . . which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect.

No amount of digital communication can replace the value of real, face-to-face interactions between humans, evidenced by employers’ complaints about millennials poor social skills.

So what is the answer to this ever-deepening technological problem? Newport advises a “philosophy of technology use.” This is another way of reminding us that technology is supposed to serve humans, rather than the other way around. He exhorts us to regain control and renew our autonomy.

Intentionality, Alone Time, and Leisure

One such principle of digital minimalism is that “intentionality is satisfying.” Humans have free will, the ability to control and direct their behaviors in a way that technology, and all other life forms, cannot. We must reclaim this power. We need to stop being passive recipients of technological advancements, using apps just because they claim to provide convenience or connectivity.

The lessons of the Amish are valuable here. Their consideration of technology always asks whether a new tool will cause more harm than good. The Amish regularly ask, “Is this new technology going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it somehow going to tear it down?” The Amish prioritize intention over convenience—rightly, Newport believes. In assessing our technology use, it is also helpful to remember that the minutes of our lives are some of our most valuable possessions. How many minutes of our lives have we needlessly invested in updating statuses, scrolling mindlessly through our feeds, or engaging in debates that five minutes prior we didn’t even think we cared about? If our time is a gift from God, we will be called to account for how we used it.

Newport also urges the necessity for alone time, especially time spent consciously apart from the digital world. This can serve as a terrifying test case to consider the scope of one’s addiction to tech. Try this: how often when alone reading or praying, are you still drawn to your mobile device? The topic of alone time transitions into a broader consideration of the reclamation of leisure, particularly as defined by Aristotle. Newport advocates a kind of leisure that involves “activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.” To Newport’s mind, this kind of leisure should prioritize active over passive consumption. It should require “real-world, structured social interactions.” He suggests finding a hobby that involves creativity and making something, or joining some kind of organization.

It’s Not Just about Autonomy

One wonders whether Newport is familiar with Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, who warned that Americans were leaving local organizations, threatening not only the civic fabric of our society, but our broader wellbeing. One wonders as well if Newport knows of Josef Pieper’s conception of leisure, which defines it as silent, still, celebratory, and non-instrumental. That’s not to say that the kinds of activities Newport advocates aren’t incredibly beneficial. If everyone transferred the time they spent on social media to athletics, volunteering, civic activities, or manual labor, we would have a much healthier culture. But Newport’s diagnosis of the problem is limited, because he does not consider the transcendent, metaphysical dimension of man. Understanding ourselves in this way helps us consider our needs not primarily in terms of control and autonomy, but in terms of our flourishing and proper telos as human beings.

Newport’s recommendations are limited by the fact that they apply most easily to wealthy, white-collar technocrats with expendable income and time. For people with multiple jobs trying to support a young family (like myself), developing a woodworking hobby isn’t exactly practical. Indeed, as he explains in the acknowledgement section, the idea for his book came to Newport while vacationing in the Bahamas in 2016. Good for you, Cal.

I recently read an amusing (fictional) anecdote about the invention of the wheelbarrow. In the beginning, the wheelbarrow is advertised as a labor-saving device that will greatly accelerate the amount of tonnage a worker can haul, and it easily delivers on the promise. But managers realize that their workers, employing these new tools, can now work longer hours without tiring. Moreover, using a wheelbarrow requires more skill than just lifting and moving stuff by hand, so the work is more physically and intellectually demanding. Proffered as a solution to a problem, the wheelbarrow instead creates more of them—at least for workers whose employers are focused solely on productivity.

Similarly, we are sold technology that offers some solutions. Yet, in some ways, it leaves us worse off than we were before—less free, less rested, less peaceful. The problem, fundamentally, is that we have failed to apply human-centered approaches to technology. We think in terms of productivity instead of human flourishing; connectivity instead of community. As Cal Newport seems to recognize, albeit imperfectly, wherever tech undermines rather than encourages the well-being of the human person, there is only one solution: scrap it.

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