A Computer Scientist Explores the Hazards of Digital Addiction

Computer scientist, MIT graduate, and bestselling author Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World uses science to investigate the impact of technology on our psyches and our lives in today’s increasingly digital world.

I recently had my first experience going “viral”. Within hours of sharing my thoughts on a controversial issue in a Twitter post, my phone was blowing up with notifications. At first, it was exciting to see the number of likes and retweets skyrocket. The spiteful comments from those who disagreed with my point didn’t even bother me – other users were jumping in to counter their arguments. But as the numbers climbed into the hundreds of thousands, with my tweet garnering millions of impressions and being screenshot for shares across multiple platforms, I began to feel a strange sense of discomfort creep in. It wasn’t just the strange feeling of seeing my face and name pop up randomly while scrolling Facebook. As hate-filled messages flooded my Twitter direct messages and my Instagram (which I use to promote this blog) was targeted by angry users, I quickly tired from shooting off witty retorts and checking my mentions for chances to debate. Just a few days later, checking my social media had become emotionally exhausting.

Around the the same time as my viral misadventures, I came across Cal Newport’s article on how to declutter your digital life for the New York Times. His suggestion to return to analog activities while breaking from social media, before limiting its use, seemed useful and applicable to my circumstances. After all, he’s a computer scientist, so he must know what he’s talking about. When his book Digital Minimalism arrived on the shelf of the independent bookstore in Oregon where I work, I was immediately drawn to it.

Ironically, when I picked up Newport’s book, I quickly discovered that I had already implemented his 31 day digital decluttering experience. I’d removed social media from my phone and limited my check-ins to a browser. I only logged on to Instagram and Facebook for my job, which involves managing social media for the bookstore. In fact, everything Newport suggests in his book were things I was already implementing based off common sense. At least I was reassured I was on the right track.

One of the things I think Newport’s book is missing, despite how much I enjoyed it, is a personal connection to the impact of social media usage. While the visceral experience of going viral – including its ups and downs – was fresh in my mind, Newport has not personally used Facebook and Twitter. If he had, he would undoubtedly have dived more deeply into the emotional and psychological impacts of using social media. Without a personal connection, I felt at times that his overview of its downsides could be superficial, resigned to the facts without a deeper exploration of the personal impact. But perhaps that is where the reader is meant to insert themselves and their own experiences, ultimately drawing their own conclusions about their digital life.

I also struggled to agree with Newport in Chapter Two, where he praises the Amish and Mennonite communities extensively for their rejection of many modern technologies. Although Newport does admit, in a singular and brief sentence, that these communities disenfranchise women, he utterly neglects their backwards and repressive views that make internet-accessible phone ownership so contraband for their communities. It isn’t simply about the technology and its positive and negative aspects, as Newport claims – it’s also about keeping women away from information that might liberate them. His justifications for teenagers who choose to stay in the communities also neglects to address that many of these teenagers hardly have a choice – why would they leave their families and resources of support? I think Newport could have taken a more nuanced look, rather than made a passing comment regarding the repressive ideals of these communities.

In another regard, because Newport is not a woman, he misses out on the chance to analyze our dependence on social validation from using picture-driven social media platforms such as Instagram. This external validation regarding beauty – something I see significantly fewer men interested in, as none of my male partners have been particularly interested in posting pictures of themselves on Instagram – is seriously addicting for women. Newport, unable to relate, completely ignores this aspect of social media usage and focuses instead on optimizing our time. But for a woman, spending large amounts of time on our appearance and taking a high quality photo that garners hundreds of likes is extremely addictive. Again, had this book been written from a female perspective, readers might have had a deeper exploration of the gender issues regarding our social media usage.

In addition, Newport spends considerable time worshiping the habits of Thoreau and Nietzsche (what else would we expect?), but if you’re willing to look past the rambling bromance-like adoration he holds for them and their ilk, Newport’s argument that we waste a substantial amount of time and energy on our phones — at the cost of our happiness. His points that we should enjoy our leisure time, our solitude, our face-to-face (or phone-to-ear) interactions, and our relationships more than endless scrolling is perfectly logical. Another argument he makes is for productive use of our leisure time, which is nice in theory, but not everyone wants to create and distribute valuable commodities in their limited free time. Newport is more on the nose when he explores the potential of rebuilding face-to-face interactions.

But as a computer scientist, he also has a deeper understanding of how these devices and apps have been strategically designed to manipulate us into feeling rewarded for checking our social media accounts, and to feel entertained by endless scrolling. Apple and Microsoft and the thousands of app designers out there want us to check our phone as frequently as possible – it’s the drug they’re selling, a drug we are deeply addicted to. And like every addiction, it comes with a cost.

Ultimately, the idea of decluttering your digital life – only checking social media via a browser, or reducing your phone usage, etc – is effective, useful, and productive. But the biggest obstacle to Newport’s argument is that, without personal experience, his book lacks the profoundness of a personal connection to the book’s material. How easy it must have been for him to implement his own solution – he’s never had Twitter or Facebook in the first place! Of course, he only addresses this downside in a footnote. It seems unimportant to him that he can write a book on a subject he has very little experience with, but I digress.

My criticisms are only that Newport, had he given a more nuanced investigation to certain issues regarding social media or had more personal experience with it himself, he could have presented a more convincing argument. What saves his book is that the audience is likely readers who are already experiencing doubts about their phone usage and are looking for solutions. That’s exactly what Newport has to offer: simple, useful solutions.

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer, book reviewer, and cat enthusiast.

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