The Trojan Horse in Your Pocket
Updated: Jun 8
Springtime is always a time for self-reflection - a moment when the world emerges from the claws of winter and the world is born anew. This spring is a particularly interesting time for self-reflection. Why? Well, we’ve been spending a lot of time with ourselves these days.
As we enter spring 2021, a little more than a year into the Covid-era, I am still in quarantine (though now that I am fully vaccinated, I am starting to re-enter the world, slowly). Mostly, I spend everyday with my fiancee, my dog, and myself. I haven’t dined inside a restaurant since March of last year, and I have no idea when that will change. I think the last movie I saw in theaters might have been The Rise of Skywalker, which was December 2019.
At any rate, the point is: We’ve all had a lot of free time on our hands. The time that we would have spent at birthday parties or at the movies or crushing beers at a local bar has collapsed. I would have thought that this would have led to more free time than I would know what to do with, but as I finished 2020 and looked back on the year, I realized that I read fewer books than I had read in a long time. That time spent in a pre-Covid world, doing all of the things that mean so much to me - it wasn’t entirely clear to me where it had gone.
Somehow, while I was thinking about this, I stumbled into a recommendation to read the book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, and I am so glad that I did.
One of the primary ideas that drives the book is that increasingly, our smartphones (and screens in general) have become more and more dominant over our lives. Newport has come up with tips, strategies, values, and principles for you to reclaim autonomy over your smartphone. In his words, we should all develop a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in our deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools we should use and how we should use them, and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else. He calls smartphones the Trojan Horse for the attention economy.
The cornerstone of the book is about the “digital declutter.” Think of it as Marie Kondo for your phone (and mind). The digital declutter is a period of a month or so where you intentionally limit the technology that you can use. Anything that is not essential for your personal life or work is eliminated from your phone. This includes any apps, websites, social media, and so on and so forth. The goal of the project is that you remove distraction from your life and are then able to return after the declutter with a newfound awareness for what you invite back into your phone, and what you allow yourself to pay attention to.
A digital minimalist, according to Newport, uses only the technology (apps, websites, and social media) that provides the maximum possible value, and brings the least possible harm. An example that he provides in the book is as follows: In order to “stay in touch” with a cousin, a person likes the photos that the cousin posts on Instagram. But is that really the best way to stay in touch? Probably not. A phone call of twenty minutes, for instance, would provide a much better way of staying in touch with a cousin. A digital minimalist, in this example, would not use Instagram to stay in touch with the cousin, because it provides too many other distractions, and does not provide the maximum possible value.
The arguments that resonated the most with me were Newport’s arguments that digital minimalism is a response to a world that we have backslid into, not a world that we have chosen, and that we need to achieve cognitive liberation from our devices. He says that we are suffering from “solitude deprivation,” where any moment alone is filled by a quick glance at the phone, which can spiral into more and more phone use. The antidotes that he prescribes in response to solitude deprivation are high quality and high value activities, such as taking long walks by yourself and journaling.
Newport also advocates for a strenuous plan for leisure. He says that “doing nothing is overrated” and that by prioritizing demanding activity over passive consumption, a greater sense of accomplishment and happiness is achieved. He recommends that those who are interested in a digital minimalist lifestyle should fix or build something every week. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Leave evidence of yourself. Do good work.” He suggests that learning to do activities like changing the oil on your car are immeasurably more satisfying than an afternoon spent scrolling through Twitter or TikTok.
I finished my digital declutter earlier this year. I keep a lot of apps on my phone, and I had to eliminate a lot of digital clutter. Next, I downloaded a tool called Freedom (available at freedom.to) that Newport describes in the book. Freedom blocks users from accessing certain websites or apps that they designate. It can also run a block on all websites and apps, effectively shutting yourself off from the internet for a period of time. I have a blocklist that runs 24 hours a day that has prevented me from accessing Instagram, Twitter, and a few other websites that I routinely visit every day that provide me no necessary information for my personal life or professional life (this list includes IGN, AV Club, and Pitchfork).
In my newfound free time, I’ve been working on the first piece of furniture that I am building from scratch: a workbench. I’ve always enjoyed building furniture from IKEA and working on projects around the house, and after reading this book, I’m trying to lean into it more. Last week, I patched some drywall and painted over it. I do feel a special sense of accomplishment with this work, and it has been rewarding to see stuff come together. It’s not just the pleasure of finishing a piece of handiwork, it’s also the pleasure found in the learning that occurs in researching how to fix certain problems.
The largest change that I have noticed so far is in small moments - walking down a hallway, going to the bathroom, a brief interlude between meetings at work. I find myself absentmindedly reaching for my phone to...what? There is nothing there now, except for my texts, phone, and various other essential apps. This digital declutter has been a huge interruption to the ways I consume information which, as Newport describes in the book, is almost a ritual: I open one site, read through it, and then open the next. Usually opening one site leads me through a routine where I have to check all of the sites that I like to read. My consumption of information has become an unconscious, Rube Goldberg-like process. And now that the ritual has been interrupted, it seems like such a silly way to use time.
The book details a lot of strategies for developing a more healthy balance, such as:
Set a schedule for calls and texts. Limit the other times in the day where you are texting or on the phone. This encourages intentionality, and intentionality is satisfying (one of the principles of the digital minimalist philosophy).
A variation on setting a schedule for calls and texts: Set “office hours” - Struggling to find the time to call people? Set a time of day where everyone in your life knows that they can call and get in touch with you. This time can also be used to call people back to whom you owe a call to, or would simply like to check-in with.
Keep your phone on Do Not Disturb by default. This limits your phones ability to reach out and grab your attention while working or otherwise concentrating on other activities. Worried that you may miss a call from a loved one? Add them to your favorites list, and their call will still come through.
Don’t click “Like.” Ever. In one of his most passionate arguments, Newport argues that the human brain has developed complex tools to process social interactions, and a “Like” is the least amount of social information possible. He calls it “social fast food.”
Join the Mouse Book Club. Mouse Book Club was Kickstarted a few years ago. The books that you receive in the book club are the size and shape of a standard smartphone. That means that you can slip one of these intentionally designed books into your pocket, and when you get the urge to open your phone, you can instead reach for classic works of literature, poetry, speech, and more.
More ambitious ideas, for those feeling particularly adventurous:
Delete the browser off of your phone. Do we really need the ability to look up the answer to everything at all times?
Build a "leisure plan" for yourself. Newport divides his leisure plans into seasonal and monthly plans. A seasonal plan will set a goal (like wanting to learn how to play a certain song on the guitar), and the monthly plan sets benchmarks along the way to drive you towards your goal.
Dumb down your phone. Some people who are included in the book have reverted back to a clamshell phone in order to make their phone less smart, and to prevent themselves from the temptation of limitless information access.
Also, there were a few pieces of valuable historical context:
Phones and social media are not the first purveyors in the attention economy. The penny papers in the 1800s were newspapers available for a single penny. The paper cost six cents to print, so the publishers did not make money off of the selling of the paper, and the audience for the penny press was massive. The newspaper publishers leveraged their wide audiences into lucrative advertising deals, which is essentially what Facebook, Twitter, and Google do now. While their products and services are mostly free, revenue is made by leveraging user data for advertisers.
One of my favorite pieces of historical context: the general purpose computer was released in the 1970s and 1980s. The phrase “general purpose” meant that for the first time, a computer could provide a wide array of functions on one device - it could perform math, process words, and so on. Early computers were only able to perform one type of task or function.
Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown, goes on to argue that general purpose does not equal productivity. Rapid switching between different applications makes humans less productive in quality and in quantity.
The iPhone was released in 2007. In the press conference to launch the iPhone, Steve Jobs spent the majority of time talking about how the device would become the greatest phone ever, and barely any talking about its connection to the internet and the App Store. The iPhone has only recently been introduced to the world, and only after its release did it backslide into a general purpose computer. In other words, we did not end up where we are by design, but rather unwittingly.
As we are in the Covid-era and many people are still in lockdown, I’m not sure that Digital Minimalism is the perfect book for the moment. In some ways, we are more reliant on technology than ever - I have only been able to stay in touch with friends and family over the past year thanks to Zoom calls, for example. But if you have felt less satisfied by your free time, feeling like your relationship with screens is out of whack, then this could be the perfect book for you.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport (2019). Support local, independent bookstores and order here. Follow The Frank Page on Instagram @The.Frank.Page to stay up to date with the latest posts and pods!