Digital Minimalism Can Return Us To Lucidity

We have all read countless laments about social media’s psychological fallout: depression, anxiety, loneliness. The platforms meant for perpetual connection isolate us in silos of comparative torture. Mediated experience becomes the diluted, smoothed-out version of embodied frictions, and the cute, minute squirms and performative patterns of in-person experience are vaporized by the electric perfection of the image. This notion of human diminishment is similar to the effect of job interviews over Skype. One loses physical dimensions, so telling in their tics, and therefore loses an integral portion of the person. Crude perception becomes necessary and glazes over natural imprecisions — eye contact, fidgeting, a whole constellation of body language lost. All our embodied improvisations lose potency and therefore detract from a holistic picture. The screen smooths out the richest human qualities into textureless tricks of facsimile and unwittingly abstracts individual action into archetypal gesture.

But to reiterate the negative effects of disembodied experience makes me another Luddite yelling at my peers to get off my lawn. I relinquished my social media about six months ago after listening to Cal Newport chat up Brian Koppelman about digital minimalism. Newport tells us that Steve Jobs never intended the iPhone as an ersatz friend, but as a utility with maps, music and weather. Social media conflates the iPhone’s original utility with its own manipulative conception of app-based companionship. Facebook has no palpable utility, Newport says, at least not the kind Jobs had in mind, only the constructed social value of likes and dislikes, which infests Jobs’ neutral platform with socio-cultural contest.

Newport advises a technological cleanse, lasting around one month, that extracts the mind from the compulsion of the social ocean and resituates it in a reflective space. It is meant to revitalize, slowly, through restorative boredom, the reflective parts of ourselves, so that our return to technology integrates a tempered, critical approach. I decided to try this, and then forewent the return. The results were initially as expected — manufactured anxiety as I created exclusive, social utopias I was no longer a part of, baffled looks from those steeped in meme culture or Twitter when I didn’t add to the dialogue and smirks conveying degrees of “that guy” aspersions that mix the condescension of a parent to a naïve child and the wonder of a younger sibling at their elder’s self-possession. The parades of polished people floated by in my mind’s eye with sinister invitations, and I could do very little to assuage my crippled sense of self, false as it was. 

Eventually, though, the banal pain and suffering burned away to reveal something far richer than basic social security. My move away from social media defogged my brain, and revitalized dormant energies — those clearer, connective and critical thoughts embarrassed by my social habits. Social media splayed my corpus of thought creation, creating a thin undercurrent of thought insecurity. I felt I could not hold on to, or even remember, complex arguments or slow-revealing, aesthetic phenomena. The speeding, backward glances urged by an uncontrollable, scrolling-and-clicking progression disallowed for substantive reflection or creation. I wrote as if constantly inhabiting a hangover brain, dulled by waves of unassimilable information and desultory images. It was writing as frustrated forms of blockage, tiny turns of the intellect that eventually pivot in a stunted circle, saying nothing, while trying to recall all.

My thoughts have no doubt become clearer and my memory more far-reaching. The various quotes from various writers I could not remember previously flash in my mind, unsolicited, with the appropriate stimuli from class, life or work. Though writing can never be finished, or absolute, my cognition has returned to more controlled state of flow and recall, instead of thin and antic darting. It is this development that I find most vital (and interesting). The psychological contrivances and patronizing quips fade away and are only the superficial (though beneficial) rewards to social media extraction. The riches of cognitive depth are what truly release the mind from experience enslaved by mediation.