“The basic idea behind digital minimalism is not minimisation,” explains Newport. “It’s all about intention. A digital minimalist starts with what they care about and then asks themselves how they can best support or amplify those things using technology.” He was speaking during the fifth, (and third virtual) installment of The Book Club hosted by Zone and Campaign, in partnership with Penguin Business.
Newport’s message, from someone who is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, may seem surprising at first. Technology, he seems to be saying, is the tail and we are the dog. We need to stop letting the tail wag the dog.
In his new book, Digital Minimalism, Newport contrasts the mindful approach to technology which he advocates with what he calls “digital maximalism”. “A digital maximalist,” he explains, “will see that there is some fun or utility in a piece of technology and ask themselves what the harm could be of using it”. But this, he contests, leads to clutter and distraction.
But how does this apply to marketing? Can digital minimalism be useful to our industry? Which by its very nature relies on using technology. Or is this philosophy the enemy of advertising? “I think what we’re faced with is a dichotomy between one type of advertising, which tries to be interesting, relevant and attention grabbing to this asymmetrical model, in which the platforms can track everything you do, build multi-thousand data-point records of your behaviour that they can use to target advertising to you and to engineer products in ways which fosters addictive over-use.”
Has COVID-19 changed our relationship with technology?
Newport also addressed the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on our relationship with technology. Since the pandemic began, some platforms have seen 70% increase in usage . Is it just a question of volume, or has COVID-19 changed something fundamental in our relationship with technology?
“The pandemic has made very clear the dichotomy I was talking about, between technology amplifying and supporting things we care about — in the context of the pandemic, keeping in touch with loved ones — and technology that makes us anxious or unhappy. So-called doom scrolling is a good example of this. And as we have seen, the Internet is very good at telling us whom we should be mad at. The same technology can be a saviour or source of real misery.”
So how can we persuade people to change their relationship to tech?
“We need to think deeply about our relationship to technology,” says Newport. “A lot of the conversation around digital rebalancing is very tactical. There’s certainly room for that kind of discussion. But tactics only get you so far. The difficulties we are having — with a feeling of unease about our relationship with technology — come back to things such as meaning, attention, how we use tools in pursuit of a good life, and so on. Just having a weekly detox and leaving your phone outside the bedroom won’t lead to lasting change.”
So, if turning off our notifications isn’t enough on its own, what should we be doing? “A positive approach," says Newport, “is almost always more effective. If you simply identify something you don’t like and then try to do it less, that’s a much less effective prompt to long-term change than creating a positive vision of what you want your life to be. We’re much more motivated to stick with inspiring positive plans for our lives than we are simply to struggle against things that we intellectually may know to be bad but which give you a benefit, even if only in the moment.”
To really get a grip on our social-media and technology usage, we should start from scratch, says Newport. “We really understand the idea of minimalism when it’s applied to physical clutter,” says Newport. ” Think Marie Kondo. And if you have a cluttered closet, you don’t just go to the store and get more containers. You take everything out of the closet and then, when it’s empty, you ask yourself what really matters to you and deserves to go back in. Do that with your online life, at least outside the world of work. Start from scratch again.”
To really make a difference, log off
Fundamentally, however, Newport’s research took him to a controversial, but perhaps timely, conclusion. The best way to improve social media, is to have less people using it. “Underlying so many of our motivations for doing things, such as our hobbies or travel, is the desire to be seen doing it. That means that the mechanisms built by large companies to increase engagement now underpin our motivational structures. Our motivational drives shouldn’t be aligned to numbers next to a heart emoji or a digital thumbs up. That’s not healthy.”
Zone, a Cognizant Digital Business, created its Book Club series to champion innovation, diversity and creativity in the technology industry, with a specific aim to inspire, educate and inform.