Last week, the British novelist Mark Haddon wrote an essay for the Financial Times about his recent decision to take a break from Twitter. What I liked about this piece is that it unpacked a nuanced back-and-forth thought process about social media.
Many of the narratives surrounding these services stumble toward an extreme: social media ruined democracy! social media is more important than the printing press!
The people I talked to while researching Digital Minimalism, however, tended to report a more conflicted experience. Not unlike a once happy relationship that’s begun to sour, they can easily list things they like about services like Instagram or Facebook, but ultimately, with a shake of the head, they conclude that keeping it in their life is no longer sustainable.
This is the story Haddon tells.
The bulk of his article lists the many novelties and happy swerves of attention that Twitter provided him. But he still felt he needed to walk away. Why? Here’s his pithy explanation:
“I am taking a long break because every tweet had begun to feel like a peep of steam through my whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — which reduced the boiler pressure I needed to write another novel.”
And so it is in the real world with many who find their patience wearing thin with social media: it’s nice; it’s sometimes spectacular; but in the end, it has a way of bleeding away the steam of life, one interrupted moment at a time, until you find yourself no longer tackling the harder, analog, striving endeavors that make a good life good.
Speaking of the pros and cons of social media, my friend (and immensely talented filmmaker) Rob Montz recently released a powerful, short documentary on the harm Instagram is causing among teenagers. Take a look.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review’s website about the excesses of email culture. In an effort to destabilize the perceived necessity of our current moment of hyperactive communication, I explored a thought experiment in which email was banished altogether and replaced with pre-scheduled office hours.
“Office hours might not work for every organization,” I wrote, “although, as I’ve argued, they would probably apply in more settings than you might at first assume.”
Given the semi-satirical undertones of this exploration, I gave a nod toward Swift in the article’s title: “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”
I’m bringing this up now because a reader recently pointed me to a Reddit thread from last month that discusses this older piece. Overall, the thread is varied and fascinating. I want to highlight here, however, a few comments that I think are representative of a general line of resistance I often encounter — usually from fellow engineering types — when I write negatively about new technologies:
“…people seem to severely underestimate how valuable it is to search past conversations, not to mention having a timestamp of when assignments and decisions got made”
“I am totally with you here. Email is THE SUPERIOR tool for communication. People simply lack the discipline to manage their inbox.”
“Having lower cost, lower friction communication is an absolute positive development.”
These points are an example of what I’ve come to call the utility fallacy, which is the tendency, when evaluating the impact of a technology, to confine your attention to comparing the technical features of the new technology to what it replaced.
Medieval monks thought a lot about thinking. As University of Georgia history professor Jamie Kreiner elaborates in a recent Aeon article:
“Their job, more than anything else, was to focus on divine communication. For these monks, the meditating mind wasn’t supposed to be at ease. It was supposed to be energised. Their favourite words for describing concentration stemmed from the Latin tenere, to hold tight to something. The ideal was a mens intentus, a mind that was always and actively reaching out to its target.”
To accomplish this goal “meant taking the weaknesses of their bodies and brains seriously.”
They used complex visual mnemonic techniques to help structure complex information in their mind’s eye.
They deployed heavy labor and moderate diet to keep their physiology in an optimal state for mental work.
Even the monastic renunciation of worldly goods and relationships supported concentration: the fewer things going on your life, they reasoned, the fewer things to distract you while trying to think about God.
What struck me as I read this article is that in our modern world, we still maintain positions in which the ability to concentrate is crucial to success: high skilled knowledge work jobs, like computer programmers, lawyers, doctors, consultants, journalists and professors.
“Both technologists parted ways with the social network amid a user boycott and as the company faced a congressional inquiry over the Cambridge Analytica controversy, when it was revealed that the political firm had improperly obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users.”
The same article then elaborated:
“After a rolling series of scandals involving the misuse of personal data, hateful content and misinformation, many Facebook users have also changed the way they use the platform”
Here’s the thing: misuse of personal data and hateful content were not the reasons emphasized by AOC for why she quit Facebook. She instead called social media a “public health risk” that too often leads to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.”
I keep encountering this same mismatch between real social media users and the press coverage of these services when I’m out promoting Digital Minimalism.
The press coverage of our culture’s growing disillusionment with social media tends to focus — like the article cited above — on policy issues such as data privacy, or political issues such as the definition of hate speech.
By contrast, when you talk to actual users about their concerns with these services, they tend, like AOC, to instead talk about their addictive nature, and how this compulsive use keeps them away from activities they know are more meaningful.
When AOC mentions isolation, anxiety, addiction, and escapism, most heavy social media users know exactly what she’s talking about.
On the other hand, when the press reports on this issue, they’re more likely to turn their attention back to Cambridge Analytica — a phrase I almost never hear mentioned by the students, parents, teenagers, retirees, artists, coders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and athletes I’ve been talking to about digital minimalism over the past three months.
Putting politics aside for the moment, we should applaud AOC for being so forthright about the complicated tensions generated by social media. These tools played a big role in her rise to national prominence, but they’re also diminishing the quality of her life (not to mention the quality of life of hundreds of millions of other users obsessively entangled with these apps). The issue here is not clear cut, but it also can’t be ignored.
To me, this is the real story about how the social media juggernaut is currently renegotiating its place in our culture.
I think we’ll all be better served once the national press recognizes this reality, and turns more of its attention from the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg testifying about data privacy and AI-driven content review, and toward the more nuanced and more human issues encapsulated by the surprising story of a 29-year-old social media rockstar who finds it necessary to escape the very techno-world that made her.
In other words, the important story is not the fear that social media companies will improperly use our data; it’s instead the fear that they’ll subvert our primal drive to cultivate a meaningful life.
A couple weeks ago, I posted an article in reaction to the news that the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals now allows his players to take “phone breaks” during their team meetings.
“You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix,” he helpfully explained.
If you’re one of the many readers who joined me in thinking this move was a shortsighted capitulation, I’m hoping to help improve your mood by sharing some uplifting counter programming from the world of college basketball.
Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.
Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.
As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.
As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:
“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”
On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.
As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:
“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”
“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'”
Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.
Earlier this week, at the NFL owners meetings, Kliff Kingsbury, the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, revealed a new rule for team meetings: “cellphone breaks.”
As reported by ESPN, Kingsbury introduces these breaks every 20 – 30 minutes during team gatherings. As he explained:
“You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix, so we’ll let them hop over there and then get back in the meeting and refocus.”
Many concerned readers sent me this article, and with good reason. It’s an extreme case of a techno-philosophy that I facetiously call the kids these days mindset, in which parents, educators, bosses and (it now seems) coaches shrug their shoulders when confronted with the impacts of highly addictive technology on young people.
This football example is useful because it so clearly highlights the shortsightedness of this strategy.
I got in some hot water a few years ago for writing a New York Times op-ed in which I argued that young people needed to spend less energy desperately trying to build their online presence, and more energy quietly developing unambiguously valuable skills. (I even wrote a book about this.)
Trout represents this philosophy pushed to an extreme. When you average 9.0 WAR over six seasons, you don’t have to worry about your Instagram followers.
Trout’s talent, of course, approaches mythological levels, which made his commitment to fundamentals a safe bet. But as with any good myth, it conveys a deeper truth. In almost any professional endeavor, developing unambiguously rare and valuable skills trumps an amorphous commitment to cultivating followers or strengthening an online brand (with a small number of well-publicized exceptions).
It also helps if you can turn on a major league fastball thrown down and in.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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