Digital Minimalism: Surviving The Digital Attention Economy

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.

I’ve always enjoyed computers and screens:   From my first Tandy 286 machine to my Ninetendo, SuperNES, NES64, then eventually a laptop, tablet and sizable iPhone.  The amount and frequency of my technology use and has increased substantially over the last decade.  I received this book recommendation from The Frugal Engineers and checked it out from my library.  I would have started it sooner but I couldn’t seem to put my phone down long enough to start reading it…which was probably another sign it was time for a change.  

What is Digital Minimalism?

The title would imply this is about reducing the reliance on technology in your life.  Instead, digital minimalism is about being intentional with what technology you use and how you use it to improve your life.  Cal Newport’s book It goes into great detail about the business models of social media companies and research regarding how it is designed for use:  How many times do you find yourself reaching for your phone in a moment of silence? Do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling, “liking”, and replying to people on social media?   

The business model for social media isn’t new:  It is the same business model of the past two hundred years.  Penny tabloids from the 1800s distribute a paper for basically free and make money from the number of eyes on it.  Network television and network news perfected this business model from the 1950s through the 2000s, giving away its product, trying to attract the most eyes, then monetizing those eyes through advertisements.   Social media and websites are no different, they are all competing in what the author refers to as the “digital attention economy*”. This is all made easier and simple with the smartphone.

There’s also research cited around mental health, anxiety, and loneliness, which he correlates to the rise of social media on the smartphone.   Is it healthy to be able to engage in / argue about a worldwide political issue on demand in less than ten seconds on twitter? Do you really need to see what everyone you went to highschool with is doing with their carefully curated instagram life?   Is it healthy to be able to read (and subsequently worry about) a large scale political or social issue at the touch of a button? Is there a social cost personally to this immediate access to information and interaction? The author explores all of these issues.

The FI Movement Shoutout:  Cal Newport gives praise to the Financial Independence movement, specifically the likes of MMM and Frugalwoods, who’ve chosen to use their leisure time for building and creating.  

Evaluating My History With Smartphones: 

I received my first smartphone through work in 2008, a beautiful blackberry device.  The full keyboard and the ability to reply to any email immediately was immediately useful.  This added value to my life – I didn’t have to always be in my office until a certain hour or get back and check email so someone wasn’t upset on a delayed reply.  Work also blocked all social media from the phones “for security reasons”, therefore I wasn’t an early adopter of Facebook or Twitter on the phone.

I eventually migrated to back to back ownership of iPhone 4’s over the next four years.  These had very small screens and lots of errors when trying to type. I had Facebook and Twitter on the phone, but don’t think I used it much.  The screen was so small it wasn’t really enjoyable to be on and I was still focused on my career and my energy either went to work or at home.

In 2015, I purchased an iPhone 6+.  The screen was almost the size of a tablet and the camera on the device was pretty good.  It was great for work, especially when I needed to zoom in to review a document or do many of the yes/no emails I had to send in my management role.  It also made Facebook/Twitter more enjoyable and I found myself using the phone a bit more for that.

In late 2016 when my spouse got ill, the relationship with the smartphone grew closer.  It was immediately an instant research device, which was useful especially when figuring out something mysterious and no doctor leading the way.  Eventually this worked its way into a Facebook support group that was invaluable for information. The smartphone also became a primary work device with my absence from the office.   Unfortunately it also became a deeper distraction from reality. I spent a lot more time on twitter and diving into blogs figuring out if/how my exit from work would go. I also had less time available for and backed away from many of my social connections – I had different priorities and it was exhausting answering the same questions over and over about health.  Add this in with a lot of time in waiting rooms and other idle time, and the smartphone habit just exploded.

Now life has returned to its new normal and I have removed the distraction of work, but the smartphone habit hasn’t gone away.  I don’t want to see 5-6 hours a day show up on my screen time report anymore (even if some of that time is from using navigation, it’s still a lot).  Should I feel the need to grab my phone every time I’m in line at a grocery store or at a stoplight in my car? Absolutely not. If I’m visiting friends in person, should I really need to pull out my phone?  My wife pointed out I was on my phone way too much when we were visiting friends back in October. I enjoy using my Twitter account related to the blog, but do I need to average 14 tweets per day?  

The reality is my smartphone usage has grown far past a level that would be considered reasonable.  I’m thankful to Cal’s book for helping guide me through what I’ve known I needed to do, but not yet taken action on.

Changes I’ve Made Since Reading:

Purging Social Media From My Phone:  I’ve deleted Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn from my phone.  The distraction and occasional irritation these platforms were causing outweighed the benefits.   Just requiring moving to my desktop computer or pulling out an iPad from 2012 to use those apps has reduced how much I’m on the phone.  It is also more obvious to me that I’m doing the habit if I’m going to get an old clunky iPad.

Enhancing Mute Words on Twitter:  I’m fortunate to have around 3,000 followers on twitter, many of whom find out when I publish something new or find one of my more popular articles on the site.  I want to keep Twitter for that purpose and interacting with other people in the Financial Independence community about financial independence. I have zero interest in getting into political debates on the platform and unfortunately without mute words, I sometimes can’t help myself from replying to some ridiculous tweet.  

Considering Writing a Policy Statement:  My former job involved far too many policies and procedures, but this would be good for Twitter and Facebook.  What specifically am I hoping to accomplish when I use these platforms? I need to carefully outline what my Twitter and Facebook use will be for 2020, either when I put together my blog goals or personal goals for the year.   These products are specifically designed to make me look at them longer, so how do I combat this? 

Focusing on phone use that is productive for me:  I enjoy using the WordPress app and Google Docs on my phone for the blog.  It’s productive and brings value to me since I’m creating. Keeping up with friends via text messages or various group chat strings is also valuable.  Scrolling facebook & twitter is not.  

What I’m Not Going To Do

Digital Minimalism has a number of recommendations in it that have worked for others but I am not going to do:

Move to a Flip Phone:   I find too much value in the ability to look up information immediately through Google, utilize navigation on the phone, and type notes on demand in documents.  I will be downsizing the phone at the next opportunity.  

I’m not deleting my accounts entirely.  Keeping these off the phone should accomplish what I want.  It would be valuable to spend some time culling down the number of “friends” on Facebook:  If I wouldn’t meet up with someone when we are in the same town, do I really need to get the latest updates on their life? 

Wrapping Up:

Digital Minimalism spends a lot of time discussing how to recapture your leisure time.  This is especially important for those like myself who’ve recently left full time work. The book’s chapters on reclaiming conversation, practicing solitude, joining something, and developing leisure plans resonated with me.   The iPhone will give me a screen time report and what that report really means is how much additional time I should have available for higher quality leisure time. This was a fascinating read and I recommend checking it out from your local library or picking up your own copy.  

* The irony is not lost on me that I own a blog and monetize it from the “digital attention economy”, yet am writing a review and generally agreeing with the author around the dangers of said economy.

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One Reply to “Digital Minimalism: Surviving The Digital Attention Economy”

  1. The concept of digital minimalism almost sounds like a distant romantic idea these days. Even though we all wish we spent less time using technology, it’s harder than it seems, especially for bloggers because there’s always something that needs to be edited or created or promoted throughout the day. Still, we dream… 🙂

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