Running is my exercise of choice. Aerobics classes frustrate me lifting weights is fine and biking is nice, but nothing has captured me like running. I also happen to be a data guy. More data equals better results – in that way I am very much like Berger and Johnston from last week’s reading. As a runner I have a plethora of ways to accumulate data. In my case I strap on my GPS watch and head out. I get home and sync it and pore over the data gathered during my most recent run. Pace, gradient adjusted pace, effort zones, and time all weigh into my post run routine. I have been tempted on more times than I can count to get a heart rate monitor so that I can have that data as well. In spite of the fact that my days being competitive as a runner are long over I still treat all the information as if it is going to push me that extra bit. But if I am honest I haven’t gotten much better in years, I am just habitually tied to the data.
Recently my spiritual director asked me what it felt like when I ran. I did not remember, outside of the tiredness. He suggested I unplug my runs and be conscious about what was happening. With that in mind I have started trying to run without my GPS watch and mp3 player. It is, shall we say, different.
In his book Digital Minimalism Cal Newport spends a good deal of time discussing the negative aspects of our current social media obsessed cultures. He takes Bill Maher’s analogy of these companies as “Tobacco farmers in t-shirts”i as far as possible directly pointing to the purposefully addictive properties of their products. Most notably how intermittent positive reinforcement an drive for social approval cause people to continue to use these products.ii His solution is to institute a minimalist approach to social media, which he defines as:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.iii
He is working against FOMO, the anxiety that you will missing something on social media if you are not constantly connected.iv His argument is that you are not actually missing anything and the quality of your life is not as good as it could be if you were in control of your use of the media. He sites numerous studies that prove his point, which I had no doubt to be true in the first place.
I was running on a Sunday morning recently, sans watch and audio player, and I heard a Vietnamese church worshiping. It was one of the most pleasant things I can remember experiencing on a run, ever. There was a joyfulness to the sound, it made me joyful. My legs were screaming and I was exhausted from the run and a hard night before, but the sound of this church singing, I could not understand the words, lifted my spirit in a way I would not have expected. I would have missed it had I had my headphones in and a podcast running. I think this is what Newport is getting at, social media dulls our sense of the sublime with a fire hose of data that is basically useless. Learning to unplug and hear what “sparks joy”v is a skill refined purposefully and over time.
Most of the time I will still run with my devices, but I will also, from time to time, purposefully choose to just run and not gather data and be entertained. Perhaps we should do this with our social media as well.
p.s. Bill Maher’s assertion that social media employees are like tobacco farmers, while visceral is fairly inaccurate. It is more accurate to call them digital mercenaries. Farming takes time and patience. The average employee turnover at a social media company is about 3.2 yearsvi with workers cycling from one company to the next as the need arises for the service they provide.
i Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. (2019), 9.
ii Ibid 17.
iii Ibid 28.
iv “FOMO | Definition of FOMO in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fomo.
v “Who We Are.” KonMari. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://konmari.com/pages/who-we-are.
vi Fagan, Kaylee. “Silicon Valley Techies Get Free Food and Dazzling Offices, but They’re Not Very Loyal – Here’s How Long the Average Employee Stays at the Biggest Tech Companies.” Business Insider. Last modified April 16, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/average-employee-tenure-retention-at-top-tech-companies-2018-4#tesla-is-in-the-same-league-with-employees-staying-at-the-electric-car-maker-21-years-on-average-tesla-employees-work-famously-long-hours-and-weekends-which-could-explain-the-relatively-early-burnout-3.