The Greek poet Homer dresses a modern issue in an ancient costume.
In his epic poem, The Odyssey the poet tells the story of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses). On his journey home to Ithaca at the close of the Trojan War, he comes across danger.
It is not a monster or a superior army. He encounters something pleasant, enchantresses called The Sirens. Their song woos the man who listens into a world from which there is no return.
Had Homer written today, the new Sirens are the digital tools that steal our attention.
This is the subject of Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In it, Newport tackles the problem of the sirens’ song of social media.
Newport is not anti-technology. In fact, he is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.
This was the second book of Newport’s I have read, the first being Deep Work. The premise of that book is we have settled for shallow work rather than meaningful, deep work. This second book takes it one more step. What gets in the way?
The problem, according to Newport, is digital technologies, and especially social media platforms, are designed not to seize your attention. Through the use of the dopamine system, computer algorithms reprogram the human brain to become dependent on those platforms.
Newport is concerned about attention. Is there not something more worthwhile upon which to focus our ever-shrinking attention spans?
Social media removes the needed boredom of life. Instead of standing and thinking in a slow-moving Walmart line, we dial up Facebook.
Once we keep our brains constantly on, they do not relax. Memories are not solidified. Rumination and reflection get shunted to the back of our mental bus. We no longer think well.
What place should digital intruders play in our daily lives? Are they friend, foe, or something else?
For Newport, the easily accessible distractions of social media, email, and online gaming are not necessarily evil. However, they are neither innocuous. He advocates prying their hexadecimal fingers from our minds and attention in order to live fuller lives.
One of his tools is the digital fast. In it, the person shuts down access to all social media site for thirty days. (He does have very narrow exceptions for business.) He asked several of the readers of his blog to take the challenge, and over 1000 did.
He advises that the purpose of the digital fast is to develop other interests which have a higher value. He suggests some kind of physical, hands-on activity. Once the fast is over, you can selectively (the keyword) add back in high-value activities. But you cannot know the value without eliminating them.
While I did not do a digital fast, I did cut down on social media consumption. I avoided news sites and moved my apps to the last screen on my phone. Even though I tried, I felt like an alcoholic walking past a bar on every corner. I was not aware of how much it dipped into time and life.
He does acknowledge the argument that there are some positive benefits gained from checking a Facebook feed. Yet, he argues whether the benefit is important enough to counterbalance the ill effects.
As Voltaire phrased it, “Best is the enemy of good.”
I found myself more at peace and with less stress. (One of the discoveries which is a “duh” is that social media tends to the negative.) I also realized I could read more, something I had let slide.
After reading the book and trying to apply some of its principles, I came away with two central thoughts about our digital experience.
We tend to spend our lives on low-value activities. How many memes are essential? What does the cat video do for you? We can ignore our children, not talk to our spouse at a dinner table, and let our spiritual lives slide into oblivion while staring at our phones. At the end of the day, it is vital to ask “what is important?” How many people can say, “all the time I spend on social media made a positive difference in my life.”
Life is worth more than posts, likes, and shares.
The second observation is our need to reinvest our lives in something more significant. For me, I read more (and currently reading more). It is intellectually stimulating and much more educational than picking up my phone to check my status. I know that the value of my life or any life is not bits and bytes bowing before algorithms created by Cretans. What can I do with my life that is more valuable, more enduring, more eternal? That is a central issue that must overlay our digital experiences.
While the digital siren calls, it is up to individuals to tie themselves to their own masts to avoid their mesmerizing music.