“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.”
“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?”
I was pleased to hear Senator Hawley emphasize these issues of addictiveness and value because they echo the concerns I heard from the vast majority of people I met during the book tour for Digital Minimalism.
It’s important to hear public figures cite these problems, because as I’ve written before, much of the media coverage on the big tech backlash focuses on what I call legal-techno geek issues, such as privacy, data portability, and content moderation.
These are important topics, and if you’re a journalist, or a social media personality, or an academic, or a political think tank type, they can be quite exciting to debate and nuance. They also have the advantage of being addressable by big swing legislative fixes, which are satisfying to imagine. (Indeed, in the recent New Yorker review of Digital Minimalism, the reviewer’s main criticism was that I avoided suggesting such systemic fixes.)
But for the average person — who doesn’t host a YouTube interview show, or cover politics, or publish research papers on network privacy — the legal-techno geek issues are not why they’re uneasy about their devices.
The mathematical details of this paper are dense, but on Rogan’s show, Ravikant summarizes its core idea: firms hire more people instead of contracting out the needed work when the transaction costs associated with setting up external relationships are high, making it easier and cheaper to do the work internally.
As Ravikant notes, the internet is driving down these transaction costs as it reduces the friction required for an entrepreneur to find and hire the right contractor for a specific task. Coase’s theory predicts therefore that businesses will become smaller and more people will migrate from stable positions to a freelance lifestyle.
I was intrigued by this discussion because it overlaps with some concepts that I’ve been developing as I work on a new book about email and the future of work.
He revealed that he started a daily poetry reading habit to “sharpen the faculties that stare at the world,” with the aim to “bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.”
He soon rediscovered the work of Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year. In reading her final poetry collection, Upstream, Foer was surprised to discover that Oliver helped him confront the very forces that had driven him to his bulwark-building poetry habit in the first place.
“The costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated,” Foer writes, and though this might not have been her specific intention, Oliver’s “poetry captures its spiritual costs.”
I recently received a message from a friend of mine, a young man named Mike. He told me that Digital Minimalism had changed his life. Naturally, I asked him to elaborate what he meant.
In response, he listed the following changes:
He lost 15 pounds and dropped his body fat by six percentage points;
he went from being terrible at dancing to pretty good (he sent me a video of him in a dance circle to prove this claim);
he developed a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu practice;
he strengthened many relationships.
This list might seem surprising: my book is about technology, and yet none of the changes listed by Mike seem to have anything to do with social media or smartphone settings. But as I’ve learned over the past few months, his experience is actually quite common among those who take the minimalist plunge.
* * * *
When people contemplate the declutter process I suggest in my book, in which you spend 30 days away from optional technology as a prelude to simplifying your digital life, they often predict that the main challenge will be compensating for the benefits and features they’ll miss out on.
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.
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