For Lent I took Facebook off my phone. Before I had even started Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism I knew I needed what he describes as a “digital declutter” . I resonated with Newport’s identification of the good intentions we (let me own this, I) have to simply use technology to stay connected to friends overseas , only to get sucked into story after story of interesting news or opinion that does not add value to my life or bring me joy. Reviewer Sarah Day Owen’s suggests this book is the digital version of Marie Kondo’s popular home decluttering strategy. I likely need to apply both to my life, but let’s start with baby steps and deal with the digital clutter. While I genuinely need social networking for both work and school, I fully resonated with the pitfall of “techno-addiction.” Even the wording was confronting as my fairly recent exploration of the Enneagram led to my discovery that my personality (clearly I’m a 7 for those familiar with this personality assessment) is particularly vulnerable to addictions in an effort to avoid pain. My insatiable need for people combined with a relatively small local network in recent years has left me feeling lost and looking for those connections online, and well, to avoid dealing with the pain of loneliness.
What we mean by connection has changed in recent years. Once, connections were soft and malleable. Our connections drew us together as a whole and to be connected was to be woven into a communal tapestry. Letty Russell, writing in 1993 describes the church as a round table and talks about connection the way I used to understand it.“If the table is spread by God and hosted by Christ, it must be a table with many connections. The primary connection for people gathering around is the connection to Christ.” These ‘connections’ meant intimacy and intentional presence. There was a rich spirituality implied. But these connections, what were once relationships, have become commodified. Connection has become rigid. The number of connections has become measurable. Once upon a time relationships were built on shared stories, intertwined lives, an awareness of each other’s histories. But Miller describes the separation of consumer items from the story of their production as such: “(t)he commodity appears naked in the marketplace, shorn of all the communal references that would give it meaning.” This has uncomfortably extended to people. Reduced to profile pictures and the carefully edited collections of photos, status updates and links shared we risk consuming each other’s sanitized lives rather than investing in deep relationships that engage the uncomfortable, awkward and broken realities. The shift from conversation to rigid digital connectedness keeps us apart. Nearness is illusionary. And while our motivation is relationship, the result of extended use of social media is loneliness. It is also critical that we acknowledge that this is not just a result of our own weakness. Newport reminds us that there are boardrooms filled with people strategically working to keep our attention drawn to the screen through interactive possibilities, pings and notifications that beckon us back because our attention is marketable. Our attention has been commodified and sold.
While Newport offers multiple strategies to resist this transformation, I want to look at how we reclaim our relationships. “Affective trust… arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. This type of trust comes from the heart. We laugh together, relax together, and see each other at a personal level, so that I feel affection or empathy for you and sense that you feel the same for me. Result: I trust you. Throughout the world, friendships and personal relationships are built on affective trust.” Only these types of relationships can bring the added value to our lives we are craving when we turn to social media. While the obvious solution is to reclaim face to face time as the basis for our relationships, it is also possible that we mobilize the best of technology to build or preserve relationships. Platforms that facilitate conversation or better yet, video interaction, help build or preserve the skills required to nurture empathy through the ability to read facial expressions and tone of voice. When we depend predominantly on digital communication for our relationships, our ability to show empathy will regress resulting in the degradation of the affective trust necessary for friendship. Perhaps more frightening is an emerging generation whose primary experience of relationships is through digital connection. Digital minimalism would not see us reject technology altogether, but shift back to what Newport calls “conversation-centric communication.” Our relationships return to being built on face to face conversations and digital communication is limited to an intentional supporting role. Newport’s hope filled invitation is to be “(d)igital minimalists (who) see new technologies as tools to be used to support things (we) deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.” Perhaps with these reclaimed skills we will create the diverse communities needed to address the painful realities we all must face.
I’m not sure how long Facebook will stay off my phone, but given how many times I checked it during the writing of this post, it would clearly be beneficial. Next step: what household items bring me joy?
1. Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), Kindle, xvi.
2. Ibid., 66.
3. Sarah Day Owen, “Are You Looking at Your Screen Too Often? Here’s How to Declutter Your Digital Life,” USA Today, February 07, 2019, , https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2019/02/07/looking-screens-too-often-how-declutter-your-digital-life/2791996002/.
4. Ibid., 11.
5. Ian Morgan Cron, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2016), Bluefire Reader, 33.
6. Letty M. Russell, Church In the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993), 18.
7. Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2005), 37-38.
8. Newport, 139.
9. Ibid., 8.
10. Erin Meyers, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and get Things Done Across Cultures (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 168.
11. Newport, 143.
12. Ibid., 252.