This comes as less than my best reflection on a book. I find myself mired in a mass shooting that should never have happened on our unique shores. A man from another world came to kill refugees and migrants finding sanctuary from fear in Aotearoa, a land far from their own lands. It seems we could not offer the things they needed most, safety, freedom, hope. New Zealand hearts are broken – this is not us. In the midst of our wide mouthed bewilderment, we pause in the deep breath, bracing ourselves for the onslaught that is yet to come: blame, pain and the fear of recrimination. Lord have mercy.
Anyhow, the book. Being a reasonably intelligent and self reflective 50 something adult, I found myself cheering while reading Cal Newport’s book Digital minimalism. The book seems to come with different subtitles, but the material is the same. However, while I enjoyed the book, there was really nothing new and insightful. I’m not a luddite, but neither am I swayed by social media or Apps or computers. For me they are tools for work, not life. For my daughter however, it’s a very different story. Her digital device has a waterproof cover so it can go in the shower with her. I mean, really! Yes, she is addicted. But then, who isn’t addicted to something, and my daughter trots that argument out every time I raise it, along with the well-worn refrain, “It could be worse, Daaad”.
Cognitive life for many has been reduce to sound bites and video clips. Reasoned thought is reduced to ten-word slogans, and complex human meaning can be articulated through an insurance advert. None of this is new, of course. Prior to digital social media, advertising psychology was well on its way to inspiring hearts and minds to particular outcomes, whether it be marketing cars, hotels, insurance companies, cigarettes or churches. Rory Sutherland is one of the most influential advertising professionals in the world who specialises in the psychology of human perceptions. If you can’t bear the idea of reading his books, then a quick trip to YouTube and you can see him at work. One of his most common observations is the inability for people to separate problems from perceptions – the idea being that a problem is only a problem when it is perceived as such, and that is determined by how people cognitively experience reality. He is well worth reading or listening to.
By nature, advertising wants to harness our perceptions in order to profit from a particular product and in recent years that has occurred through gripping our emotions rather than rational needs. Prior to digital media, analogue media was little different, but was confined to smaller constituent groups and geography. The mechanism of addicting people to certain brands as ‘status defining’ or ‘meaning giving’ were no different; everything from cars to cigarettes to fashion. To put it in biblical terms, humans ate that apple, and Gucci was born. Our identity is all too often shaped by perceptions of self and others; perceptions created by those who wish to profit from our changed thinking. And that’s precisely what social media outlets are purveyors of social meaning, for their own gain. Newport quotes Bill Mayer from his American TV show Real Time:
The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.
However, unlike smoking, social media as a product won’t kill you. Newport goes out of his way to express that truth throughout the book. What we need to be aware of is the difference between a useful tool, the motives of the producer of the tool and the secondary unintended consequences of the tool. I have no belief that Facebook set out to addict people in such a way that it broke their lives, wrecked relationships and became a mechanism to suicide. The same goes for snapchat, Instagram and all those other App’s that leave me cold. However, once the wealth starts flowing, increasing the wealth of shareholders by harnessing unhelpful addiction makes those companies less than moral in their approach. But it’s a two-way street, consumers must be personally responsible for their behaviour. Consequently, Newport convincingly attempts to re-centre digital users toward personal control. Tools are tools, but when you take them to bed (or the shower), they become something else.
Face to face Human interactions are our normal way of interacting. Newport points out that our brains are biological wired for kinesthetic relationship. These offline interactions are deep and rich because the involve complex sensory interactions. Digital media flattens the interaction and removes essential ‘human presence’ from the equation by replacing the real with little more than a digital projection of another self.
Asking my daughter about her perceptions of Newport’s Digital Minimalism ended in the expected question, ‘why?’ She could not see that there was much to gain, but plenty to lose. I then realized that Newport’s book makes sense to those of us in the second half of life, but not so much those in the first. First half people are on the journey of discovery, becoming and succeeding. They a grasping everything available and milking it for all it’s worth. In the second half of life we tend to let go and think about personal integration and the reflection upon our own deep connection with eternity and meaning – after all, there is more life behind us than there is ahead. Unless I missed something, Newport doesn’t address these powerful developmental aspects of life which affect our perceptions of the power of digital media.
Yet, I was moved. It’s Lent, so social media is taking a break (except for dminlgp9) and already the angst of navigating unbridled stupidity has lifted from my soldiers – the problem is, I’m missing the madness. What a wretched man I am.
 Rory Sutherland, “Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense,” (2019-05-07).
 Ibid. 142
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: On Living Better With Less Technology. Penguin, 2019. Kindle Edition
Sutherland, Rory. “Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.” (2019): 320.