Last year, I began a series on nepsis and the practice of so-called “Digital minimalism” for Orthodox Christians. Though this series had an auspicious beginning, I was rapidly taken off-track from completing it at that time for a multitude of reasons. With Lent coming to a close, I will continue that series now. We are approaching the very same Bridegroom Matins services and hymnography I referenced in my last piece. Let us keep those reminders of our spiritual life with us after Pascha! How easy it is to get through the Great Fast, through Holy Week, through our liturgical celebration of the Lord’s glorious Resurrection, only to put aside spiritual sobriety as we ease into the festal season between Pascha and Pentecost. It should come as no surprise that as we relax our fasting rule (and often our liturgical life), we tend to relax our personal prayer rules and concomitant ascetical watchfulness. Here, I aim to provide a starting point for avoiding at least part of that experience so that we may keep the lamps of our souls trimmed and ready with oil for the day when the Bridegroom comes unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
In my last piece, I gave an overview of the ascetical practice of nepsis (νῆψις) as prolegomenon to discussing Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. I briefly outlined the way in which vigilance and sobriety is witnessed to in our scriptural, liturgical, and patristic tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church, and I related the practice of nepsis to our engagement with various technologies. In closing, I asked why we seemingly exempt new media from the thoughtful, intentional consideration we give things as apparently mundane as jewelry and as sophisticated as modern medicine. In this long-overdue follow-up, I will try to provide some explanation of this phenomenon and I will discuss the way we, as Orthodox Christians, can leverage the practical philosophy of “Digital Minimalism” as a neptic approach to managing digital media rather than being managed by it.
Another writer on this blog once noted, “Questions regarding limits and teleology are put aside because we so blindly believe that technology is always oriented towards … perfecting and fulfilling our human desires.” Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (2019, Portfolio/Penguin) insists that it is precisely questions of limit and teleology that will free us from the deleterious impact of digital technology on our lives. He writes, “I’ve become convinced that what you need instead [of “modest hacks and tips”] is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”
Lest we forget the intended telos of these small computers we carry everywhere, Newport reminds readers in his first chapter that smartphones were not intended to reshape “people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction,” but instead were primarily intended to integrate portable music players (remember the iPod?) with cell phones to limit one’s pocket clutter and improve one’s traditional media (audio and video) experience. There was a specific end in mind, and we have come far from that: new media services are increasingly created without purpose, without a problem to solve, only to snare the user’s attention so that he (or at least, his attention) may become a commodity to be bought and sold for advertising. Likewise the users of new media join services, download apps, and begin to reshape their days around using new technologies simply because the technology is there rather than to accomplish a specific goal. Newport, for example, shares that many of his peers suggest that he should use new media (e.g., Facebook) because he may find that there’s something useful there that he otherwise doesn’t know about rather than because of an expressed or observed deficiency in his digital toolkit.
Watchfulness and digital minimalism, however, require that we avoid using things just because they are there. Instead, we need to optimize the manner in which we leverage technology and new media. In Digital Minimalism, Newport provides strategies for clawing back the unfortunate (and frankly bizarre) pressure that social media places on us. This book is broken into two sections—”Foundations” and “Practices”—that will encourage the reader to reclaim attention and time and provide specific activities for to decoupling oneself from the machine to become more fully human.
In “Foundations,” Newport discusses the problem of becoming slaves to the digital machine gods and introduces the philosophy of digital minimalism. The three principles of Digital Minimalism are solid and intuitive: clutter is costly; optimization is important; and intentionality is satisfying. In a world where we are encouraged to be maximalists, taking a tactical approach to extracting value from tools (instead of becoming the product bought and sold) is an integral mode of resistance to what one social psychologist calls “surveillance capitalism.” Furthermore, Newport recommends a 30 day “digital declutter,” during which participants are called to “explore and rediscover activities and behaviors” that are satisfying and meaningful. After the declutter, participants are to “reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate,” making determinations on “what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.” The declutter is elaborated on to make it a realistic and productive effort instead of something doomed to failure from the start.
In the second half of the book, “Practices,” Newport highlights the value of solitude and leisure—that is, filling our time with high quality activities that involve real world efforts and real world interactions. There’s a chapter in here (“Don’t click like!”) on how social media attempts to use our inclinations to subvert us from these real world activities and trap us in a cycle of attention to screens and not to our real lives. Throughout this section, Newport shares a number of practices and approaches taken by a variety of people he has identified as emblematic of the digital minimalist philosophy, illustrating key ways we can break this trap and embrace intentional, real-world living. As the purveyors of new media try to convince us to shift previously embodied activities to the so-called metaverse, taking this seriously matters more than ever.
I have not done the full digital declutter, but my writing this is not intended to be hypocritical. Like many of you, I “took a break” from social media at the beginning of Lent, but I did not delete my various social media accounts. I’ve briefly logged in to Facebook to share some resources with academic peers and friends and to look for items on the local Facebook marketplace. As someone who administrates and moderates a handful of online communities, some with memberships in the tens of thousands, this was a big departure for me; the spiritual payoff is already incredible. In fact, as we look towards the services of Holy Week culminating in the Passion, Crucifixion, Burial, and Third Day Resurrection, I anticipate diving headlong into a true implementation of the digital declutter. During that time, I will further reduce my usage of digital technology. Perhaps ironically, I will share my experiences doing so here on this blog, reflecting on the spiritual impact of digital decluttering and discussing the details of the various practices provided by Newport—and beyond!—hopefully inspiring you to do the same.
Ultimately, Digital Minimalism isn’t a call to becoming total Luddites (though I’m tempted to do just this)—first, it’s a reminder that life should be beyond the screen and, second, that our new media/technology usage isn’t binary (you don’t use it ever or you’re a slave to it), but rather that we can be tactical, thoughtful, and intentional in the way we extract value from media without becoming slaves to the digital machines. St Hesychios writes about nepsis: “One type of watchfulness consists in closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation; for only by means of a mental image can Satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the intellect in order to lead it astray.” I submit that this is same the kind of scrutiny we should apply to media, and for the same reason.