Digital Minimalism (2018) is a practical guide to navigating today’s media landscape, where multiple billion-dollar companies are out to keep your eyes as glued to their platforms as possible. Fortunately, there is growing skepticism surrounding new technology and digital media. People are eager to regain their autonomy and, while they’re at it, live more satisfying and healthy lives. With these tools and methods, you too can regain the focus and productivity that comes from stepping back from new technology.
In 2016, New York magazine ran an article by the popular writer Andrew Sullivan. In 7,000 words, the author described how the constant onslaught of news, images and online babble finally “broke” him. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the symptoms of what Sullivan was writing about – the constant urge to take out your smartphone and check your texts, email or social media feeds, the strange dull sensation of a moment when you’re not using digital media. How did we end up here?
One important thing to realize is that the technology at the center of this problem was never intended to be used in the way it is now. When the first smartphone, the iPhone, debuted in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the device as “the best iPod ever.” It was a cool way for you to make phone calls and also listen to your music. According to Andy Grignon, an Apple engineer on the first iPhone project, Jobs dismissed the idea of the iPhone becoming a platform for third-party apps and gaming.
As for Facebook, it’s well known that in 2004 Facebook was considered a clever novelty – a way to find out more about a friend of a friend – not a major source of news or even a popular time waster. For most college students in 2004, the computer strategy game Snood was far more popular than Facebook.
So, when people first brought iPhones and Facebook into their lives, they weren’t signing up for something they would spend hours every day looking at. This dangerous and addictive side to technology is something that’s crept up on us, thanks to the very intentional work of social media engineers. In a 2017 episode of the HBO talk show Real Time, Bill Maher referred to the “social media tycoons” as being the new big tobacco, selling products designed to be as addictive as possible.
Indeed, much has been written about the tactics used to get and keep our attention, including the way some tech companies take advantage of the natural human desire for social approval. One of the most significant developments took place in 2009 when Facebook introduced the thumbs up button, a variant of FriendFeed’s “like” button. Now, when someone posted something, it became a deeply interactive experience. How many people in my tribe would like what I posted? There was a primal urge to keep checking in and we have become finely attuned to the notification sounds accompanying these responses.