Digital minimalism: how and why you should try it, part one

Tech gurus Tristan Harris and Cal Newport give some expert advice on digital minimalism and how to take back control of your lives.
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We know all too well that society has a technological addiction; if only we knew just as well where all those hours of endless scrolling and refreshing went. In the currency of time, few live above the bread line. Time is so precious a commodity nowadays that our time and attention has become the currency of the digital world.

If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product, or so the saying goes. However, ‘Zucked’ author Roger McNamee has suggested that we technology users are not even the product, but merely the fuel, our data being farmed and exploited for financial gain without regard for our service or personal privacy. Irrespective of which analogy you subscribe to, we consumers have either tacitly ‘agreed’ to concede a whole host of rights, or we are being abused on a monumental scale.

There is a delicate balance between personal privacy and public security; it could be argued that modern society has been more willing to give up the former in return for the latter. This concession along with the natural power imbalance between users and corporations has rendered the status quo in favor of the media giants including FAANG⏤Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. So what can we do about it?

With expert advice from tech gurus Tristan Harris and Cal Newport, we can become digital minimalists and regain some control, or at least try digital minimalism. But before we get acquainted, let’s take a moment to define ‘digital minimalism’. Here are the pithy words of Newport himself:

‘Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies this idea to our personal technology. it’s the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world.’

Technology hijacks people’s minds

Known as the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris is “an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities“. Given his education and CV, Harris is a master of breaking down the methodologies used by FAANG to “influence what people do without them even realizing it”. Let’s take a look at some examples:

FOMO

Everyone has experienced FOMO at some stage, but few have considered its digital impact. More precisely, Harris uses the acronym FOMSI, meaning ‘fear of missing something important’. According to Harris, checking our phone for notifications in the morning “frames the experience of ‘waking up in the morning’ around a menu of ‘all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.'” This intentional inducement of FOMSI is what keeps us subscribed to email newsletters and ‘friended’ to people whom we would not naturally consider our friends⏤it is also what keeps us endlessly checking the news and refreshing social media feeds.

Instant connectivity is one of the greatest benefits to come with the digital world and smartphones in particular. However, the more capable smartphones get, the more FOMSI stands to benefit technology companies. What if you failed to film that cherished memory or didn’t see that thing that all your friends saw on Facebook last night? What if you were to miss that important business call, job opportunity, or family emergency?

The irony is, you miss out on so much by staying glued to your devices. Moreover, “it’s amazing how quickly, once we let go of that fear, we wake up from the illusion.” Rather than inducing anxiety around FOMSI, Harris urges technology companies to help users focus on Time Well Spent⏤this is also the name of a nonprofit organization founded by Harris, which aims to reverse the so-called digital attention crisis.

Who needs FOMO when there is JOMO?

Slot machines

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Harris asks, are we making 150 conscious choices? According to Harris, technology companies use intermittent variable rewards to keep users hooked. When we users check our phones for notifications, swipe on dating apps, refresh our feeds or scroll down that little bit further, we are playing a slot machine. We are gambling with our own time and these slot machines⏤that rarely pay out⏤are competing for our attention. Harris says that allocating certain times to playing these slot machines would empower the user. Simply being aware can help mitigate your risk.

Part two coming soon…

Check back in later for part two of this article, where we’ll look at how the enormous number of notifications we receive force us to interact more, the push for ethical technology, and more.

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