“Have you seen the tiger yet?” I had just refilled my cup at Grace Street Coffee on the campus of Georgetown University and was somewhere into my second hour of media mindlessness on my iPhone when a nice looking young man in jeans and a long sleeve button-down planted himself in front of me and jolted me out of my stupor with his bizarre question.
“Tiger? What tiger,?” I responded, incredulously. “Oh, you didn’t know,?” he replied, “Social media is like a stereogram. Hidden among all the images, likes and emojis is a tiger and, if you’re not careful, it will eat you alive.”
The scenario above is fiction, not fact, but reading Cal Newport’s newest book, “Digital Minimalism,” is like having the bright, young Georgetown Professor appear at regular intervals throughout the book and ask, “Have you seen the tiger yet?”
What or who is the tiger and how did she get in our mobile phones? According to Newport, the stalking stripped feline is social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It should be self-evident that a company like Facebook, valued at $500 billion, would have an agenda. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the social part of the majority of social media apps has a significant dark side. So dark in fact that Newport recommends we delete Facebook (and all other social media apps not essential for one’s business) off our phones and severely limit their use on other devices.
Like a hidden tiger in a social media stereogram, we don’t see our endless scrolls and swipes for what they indeed are until several hours invested in objectively squinting; looking deeper, then the “Ah Ha!” moment when the image jumps out at us from the screen. But we needn’t fear, say the social media megacorps, the “tiger” wants us alive, not dead. It’s not our selfies, but our attention that she’s after.
The Attention Economy
With the amount of available information soon to be doubling every 12 hours, our ability to focus has become severely compromised. Thus, our attention has become an increasingly valuable asset. And it’s this asset that is making social media companies among the most valuable on the planet and their founders into billionaires. The information economy is in the rearview mirror. We are now in the attention economy.
One of the central messages of Digital Minimalism, as well as Newport’s previous literary contribution, “Deep Work” is that our ability to eliminate distraction and do focused, deep work, is fast becoming the single trait that will enable us to succeed in this new economy. A study he cites by Gloria Mark at the University of California Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after just one break in attention.
What we missed at Walden Pond
Newport asserts that Thoreau, whom many see as solely a herald for solitude and lover of nature, had much more to teach us about life beyond the pond. Cal writes, “[Thoreau] asks us to treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance—arguably the most valuable substance we possess—and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time” (page 43).
I resonated with Cal’s recommendation for us to determine our values, then to shape our lives (including our use of both time and technology) accordingly. In 2016 my wife, Sarah, and I were trading way too much time to maintain a lifestyle we no longer wanted. With the guidance we received from Greg McKeown’s book, “Essentialism” and “The Minimalists” blog, we sold our 4000 square foot home with the pool and hot tub, offloading two-thirds of our possessions in the process.
That one decision enabled a new chapter of living debt free, launching us into a year of sabbatical (three months of which were in Spain), sparked much-needed healing in our spiritual, emotional, physical and marital health, and birthed a new non-profit to come alongside ministry couples, helping them to find greater joy and freedom in their marriages and ministries.
Digital Minimalism helped us realize anew that the minimal life is not an event but a fascinating, liberating journey of discovery. We are exploring how to how to take the minimalist experiment we began in 2016 and apply it to our time, mainly how we use our time on our phones and social media in particular. The first step was to take all social media apps off my phone. I already notice how much less app-ed I am to reach for my phone as a result of that one simple move. Let the digital detox begin.
“Digital Minimalism” is far more than merely a rational, reasoned and well-researched clarion call for a digital revolution regarding social media usage. It is a call to a curated life; one that values real contribution in the lives of people; showing up in people’s lives in person or with a personal call, not simply clicking “like.”
About the Author: Dave Hall is the Founder and Executive Director of Grace Adventure where he and his wife, Sarah, help ministry couples go from surviving to thriving.