I first realized that technology was making me anxious a few years ago. Unlike most people, I carry, at all times, three devices capable of demanding my attention: a cell phone, an insulin pump, and a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM). The insulin pump and CGM greatly improve both my health and quality of life, and the cell phone is a near necessity of modern life. In fact, on some weeks, I am required by my job to have my phone on me at all times as part of our on-call rotation. Each of these devices used to beep or vibrate throughout the day when they needed my attention. The most frustrating time, however, was when all three of these noise-makers would go off at once. A buzz from the cell phone, I’d take it out of my pocket. Then the CGM would go off, letting my know my blood sugar was high, so I’d put down the cell phone, and pull out the CGM to silence it. Immediately after picking up the CGM, the pump goes off telling me I have 20 units of insulin left. This only had to happen three or four times before I realized that I had a problem with interruption. The fact that I can’t really do without my CGM or insulin pump meant that I began to think more deeply about how much of my annoyance was caused by my cell phone. In fact, the cell phone asked for far more of my attention than either of the other two combined. In the face of annoying but necessary and infrequent interruptions from my medical devices, the constant and meaningless interruptions of the quasi-social device in my pocket became the focus if an intense frustration. The phone had to go, or at least to become silent.
A few days ago, I began reading Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism. In it, Newport lays out an argument and evidence for why he believes many modern technologies – especially social media – are not only useless, but harmful to our mental health, and to society as a whole. He asserts that new technology, if used intentionally and for a specific purpose, can be beneficial. But the way we are encouraged to use many technologies today is neither intentional nor directed toward a specific purpose. Rather, it’s aimless, and often achieves very little aside from wasting time and putting ads in front of our eyeballs. Large companies like Facebook and Google are served by our usage of these technologies, but we, the end users, are hardly served at all. He encourages his readers to only spend time on technologies that are the best available way to pursue something that is valuable to them, and to only spend as much time using those technologies as is necessary. This idea resonated with me.
Shortly after I noticed how much anxiety my devices were causing me, I took two steps that helped relieve that anxiety. First, I adopted a one-strike policy for app notifications on my phone. The first time an app showed me a notification that I didn’t want – YouTube suggesting new videos to watch, Twitter suggesting new people to follow – I blocked all of its notifications in the settings on the OS. Once an app showed me that it wasn’t being responsible with my time, I took away its ability to demand attention. Sorry, bud: you’re done. Second, I put my phone in Do Not Disturb mode for everything but phone calls from my contacts. I told all of my friends and family – anyone who might need to get a hold of me in an emergency – that my phone only rings for calls, so that’s how to get me in an emergency. If that seems drastic, consider that perhaps fifteen years ago, telephone calls were the norm, and texting was an unusual, unreliable method of communication. People during that time got by fine. Even today, we still call 911 instead of texting 911. And, speaking of which, if the fit really hits the proverbial shan, 911 does still exist. I was confident that things would be ok.
Many people who give up distracting technology complain of an even greater anxiety that follows. It’s like the silent unknown that replaces the buzzing and pinging is somehow more unbearable. To be honest, I was so fed up at this point, that I didn’t look back. I didn’t miss the notifications, I was simply happy to have some peace. I did check my phone frequently, but I did it on my own terms, and since then I’ve slowly whittled my phone usage down to the point where I hardly check it at all. It took time, it wasn’t easy, but I’m happier for it.
I haven’t disabled Do Not Disturb mode yet, and it’s been at least two years. And the other night, when I was telling someone about my one-strike policy, I forgot whether it had been three strikes or one, because I haven’t had to enact it in a while. Anything on my phone that impertinently attracts my attention has been silenced. My insulin pump still goes off, and my CGM (which is now an app on my phone, and is the only app that is allowed to disturb me aside from phone calls) still buzzes when my blood sugar goes too high or low. But otherwise, my distraction happens on my terms. I only allow my phone to distract me when I want it to, and when I’m focused on something other than my phone, I don’t have a bunch of apps vying for my attention like a bunch of little, bratty children. I no longer have that feeling you get when your phone buzzes, and the only thing you can think about is who sent you what message. I never know when I get a meaningless notification, so I don’t have the chance to care what that meaningless notification says until I’m ready.
One night a few days ago, I somehow turned Do Not Disturb mode off. It happened at a time when a friend was texting me. My phone buzzed away in my pocket as I tried to hold a conversation. “How did I ever live like this,” I thought to myself, “this is awful. I can’t think.” I pulled it out and silenced it again.
There seems to be a perception today that people should be available all the time. That if someone texts you, you should respond right away, and that to do otherwise is rude. I reject this idea completely. I, as a person, am not on call 24/7 to respond to the whims of people who are far away. The moment I’m currently living in will never come again, but someone’s text about the weather will still be there when I have time to look at it, and if there’s fire raining from the sky, or sharks in tornadoes hurtling toward me, they can call me and I’ll answer. The expectation that we should respond to every message immediately keeps us agitated, constantly moving and ready to be disrupted. A single, unimportant message can steal our attention away from an important conversation or an illuminating thought. Being always available robs us of our ability to choose how we spend our time and who we spend it with. It lets other parties who don’t know what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, or where we are determine what we should pay attention to. And that’s not ok with me. I’m not ignoring you, I’m just choosing to respond at an appropriate time.
A central concept of Newport’s Digital Minimalism is that of the “attention economy”. I remember a time when most online services cost money. If you wanted a fancy e-mail address – or even a fancy web interface in which to read your e-mail – you had to pay for that service. More often than not, you got your e-mail address from your Internet Service provider, and if you wanted more addresses or more space, you had to pay an additional fee. Then, one day, things started to become free to use. GMail, when it was first released in Beta, was interesting to me because it was a great service that was completely free. “How did they make such a great e-mail service that so many people are using free,” I wondered. Obviously, the punch-line of this joke is advertising. These days everything is free, because everything is ad supported. If a website charges a fee, you’ll only use their service if you really want it or need it. But if that same website is free in exchange for the odd ad every now and again, sure, you’ll give it a try. The more time you spend on the site, the more ads you see, and the more money the site’s owners make. These sites are incentivized* to maintain your attention for as long as possible so they keep making money. Hence, the attention economy.
In the past few months, I’ve seen popups in my browser inviting me to allow websites to send me notifications. These are the efforts of media producers and platform owners who are desperate to drag potential ad-viewers back to their platform. Just like the meaningless notifications on my phone that I so eagerly block, telling me who’s tweeting or who just went live on Facebook, these sites want to distract me from what I turned on my computer to do, and to drag me into what they want me to do: look at ads. No, I do not want CNN to send me notifications on my computer, or for Facebook to be constantly tell me about who posted what. If I wanted to know who posted what, I would go to Facebook and look it up myself. But these platforms wouldn’t invest money in tactics like this unless they were working. The attention economy is real, and business seems to be booming.
Reading Digital Minimalism was a vindicating and enlightening experience. To read the ideas of someone who feels similarly about this problem – and who has done a lot more thinking about it than I have – was refreshing. And reading suggestions for how to be more intentional about the technology I use, and to cultivate more valuable leisure time has given me ideas to pursue in the future.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m a Luddite, or that I hate technology in general. My insulin pump and CGM offer me a lot of freedom, and my cell phone helps me coordinate and manage my life in ways that would be much more difficult without it. I’m also not anti-internet: the internet offers access to many tools and information that I think are important and useful. I might be anti-social media, but that’s not really the point I want to get across. What I am certainly against is the abuse of our rather naive human instincts in order to make money by steering us away from each other and toward meaningless sources of distraction, without any regard or understanding of what it’s doing to our lives. Most of all, if you take anything from this rambling jumble of thoughts I’ve thrown at the wall (sorry, it’s been a while and my blog-writing skills are a bit rusty), it’s this: try taking some time to disconnect. Try slowing down and removing some distractions from your life. Let it be uncomfortable and see if you can find peace in the stillness. Feel what it’s like to be alone with your own thoughts, and to spend some time taking a walk, riding a bike, or even staring out into space – no music, no notifications, no distractions – just letting your mind wander. Talk to someone and try to learn something new: focus on them. Ask them questions. Try to not only hear what they’re saying, but to truly understand the intention behind their words. Turn off your phone, and leave it at home. Try just one of these things. You can always go back if you find yourself worse off, but I don’t think you will.
*Yes, I used a horrible business word. I tried to do it with a hint of irony. I’m sorry.