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In praise of digital minimalism

First slide

“Dad, there you go again with your pocket slot machine. What did you win this time?” 

This is what one of my kids asked me when I was caught scrolling through my Twitter feed in the kitchen recently.  

And I was delighted by this filial act of accountability.   

After all, for nearly an entire week, I had been lecturing them at the dinner table about the lessons I was picking up from Cal Newport’s recently released book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” I stretched the limits of their patience evening after evening by relating to them the stories of the Silicon Valley insiders who confided to Newport about the “digital attention economy’s” manipulative practices and “race to the bottom of the brainstem.” 

Over those dinners, I tried to drive home Newport’s thesis that we need an intentional, “less is more” approach that allows us to be laser-like in “extracting the good” from digital technology while “sidestepping all the rest.” 

“You won’t believe this,” I gesticulated wildly as I monopolized yet another family dinner. “The business models of the digital attention conglomerates are not built on making you smarter and happier. They’re built on the ‘primary mission of devouring your time,’ your ‘eyeball minutes,’ your fear of social exclusion and your craving for the next dopamine hit. They’re banking on you not having the willpower to be alone, to enjoy solitude, to go for a walk, to have face-to-face conversations and to experience high-quality leisure. The conglomerates want us — all of you, and me and your mother — mindless, compulsive and afraid. But that’s not us, because this family is part of the attention resistance.”  

Not a second passed before my in-house focus group of two teens and three elementary school students threw the kitchen sink at me. They disputed my evidence. They went ad hominem, calling me a hypocrite (I am). The digital natives tried to disqualify my arguments by claiming I have silver hair, am middle-aged and know nothing (yes, yes and … ). 

But around the third evening, they showed signs of cracking. I knew it because instead of the old “us-them” mentality of “us (iGen/GenZ, born between 1995 and 2012)” versus “them” (parents), I heard a new “us-them” emerge: it was “us” as a family versus “them,” the digital attention conglomerates of Silicon Valley (Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc.). 

“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,” I shared a quote from the book as I looked my kids in the eyes. “The App Store wants your soul.” What I did not share aloud at the dinner table was in fact what fueled my gnawing urgency: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen,” Newport cites author Jean Twenge, “as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”  

After years of clashes over screens, something new was in the air. Together, we were beginning to build the “conceptual scaffolding” of digital minimalism, a “full-fledged philosophy of technology use” that Newport argues is needed to organize our thinking and to withstand the power of the multi-billion-dollar conglomerates with their “attention engineers” and “techno-apologists.”

We began to own a shared sense of the battle for our very souls. We had to admit that we were all suffering from “solitude deprivation,” defined by Newport as “a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.” And we were having some great laughs in the process. 

Some time has passed since my call to the frontlines of the attention resistance. Perhaps not surprisingly, what Newport calls the “friction of everyday life” has prompted me to backslide toward the 85-times-a-day average of checking the phone, compulsivity, digital clutter, “low-value digital habits,” and social media’s “point-and-click relationship maintenance.”      

But it’s time for the adults in the room to throw out this tired playbook and to recapture the high ground of what being human is all about. Since Neo-Luddism is not an option for our children to succeed in the world we have wrought, it’s time for us to do the hard work of modeling a savvy and resilient philosophy of technology use rooted in the rich soil of common sense and our Catholic teaching. 

This will take time and more than one family dinner or meeting. This will take prayer, grace and humility. But to shirk this duty is to push our children — and ourselves — over the brink and into a mental-health crisis and a life spent playing the slots.  

Vive la résistance.



Johnson is diocesan director of evangelization.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019