day 9: the unbearable liberty of minimalism

DIGITAL MINIMALISM
by Cal Newport
Penguin Random House, 304pp., February 2019, 978-0525536512

One of my friends often tells me that most of anglophone philosophy is based on bad translations of european philosophy. I tend not to fall into these conversations over fears that my grasp of most of these things are so elementary that any addendum I might have in a conversation on this is briefly entertaining at best and mildly irritating at worst. However, there is something to be said about a tendency found in anglophone writers: they quote european philosophers at length in self-help books without actually justifying much of the tradition that has grown in philosophy after, say, a Nietzsche or an Aristotle. This does end up creating an impression of reading these philosophers for how much they can help you. Cal Newport’s fairly recent book Digital Minimalism goes between a book that is interventionist in its outlook to being an example of the kind of book that often has odd blind-spots of immense cultural value.

Newport’s book is one of the many attempts to educate myself about the conversation and literature about being data-conscious. Given Newport’s own academic background (he is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University), it is one the books I have consumed during this coronavirus-induced time that has magically appeared in my schedule. The reason the book appeals to me, therefore, is not because I read it as relevant literature but also about the “hacks” a peer might have about being data-conscious.

The book—should it be marketed to people from Gen Z to millennials—offers something that has become a near ubiquitous topic: Big Data is watching you. It is, however, not very radical in offering people the way to get out of it; quit it and monitor the way you develop your relationship with the tech giants of the world. The radical departure he makes, I would argue, is the manner he manages to tie-up a relationship between a happy and fulfilling life and that of a productive offline life through many lengthy passages of Aristotle, Thoreau, and Franklin. His many “practices”, for instance, include a 30 day declutter of your digital ecosystem, followed by high-quality leisure principles.

The reason it seems to be paradoxical to me is this: the kind of productivity that he encourages is so unapologetically apolitical that the high-quality leisure principles that he lays out only amplify a kind of outcome: a neoliberal one. Or rather, a quintessentially American one. Let me unpack this a little bit.

The Offline Island Bubble

There is enough talk about Facebook being an echo-chamber that has a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. There is far too much said about it everywhere for one to put links out there. The more dangerous issue that should be appealing to the digital minimalist, however, is that these echo-chambers do not simply have an impact on one’s life-quality because of the problems of the infinite scroll problem; it is also an issue of political leverage that one hands over to the Facebooks and Googles of the era. This is the problem of unregulated debates, working closely with tyrants who stamp out all dissent, and actually not stopping political ads that openly lie.

To counter this, when Newport tells the reader to find a balanced diet of views that are on the right and left sides of the aisle, it smacks of the centrist value of saying “there are good guys on both sides”. Listening to the right side of the aisle today, whether be it in Europe, US, or South Asia, means that we are enabling those who have blood on their hands.

The issue of social networks is not that it traps people’s productivity but also that should one be anything but a male/white/western/straight user, chances are that you will find your mental health affected by the indulgences these websites allow the most abusive/racist/sexist/violent of users. This is, then, not something that can be helped by going offline, can it? This is a political issue.

While I mused about this to myself recently, Newport’s book offered an explanation why questions of digital minimalism, or minimalism in general, uses some of the most disturbingly non-inclusive examples. There is a class aspect to it. In his “practice” that spoke about high-quality leisure principles, Newport mentions that one should be “handy”—one should learn how to make things and not spend hard earned leisure by mindlessly going about social media. This is a red herring. It sounds like a good idea till one realises that his examples in that part of the book deals solely with, what he calls, FI people; people who have gained Financial Independence at a relatively younger age. i.e., rich young people. The fact that even for one to even have/borrow the tools to execute such a proposition begs a question of capital: social and otherwise. To add to that, while I understand that mindlessly scrolling through social media takes a terrible toll on mental health, there is not much else one can do if one does not possess: a room of one’s own, capital to begin such a project, ability to execute such a project. With the recent explosion of disability studies in tech, the sheer enormity of this blind-spot was quite mind-boggling.

On the other hand, the examples of community building that he gave also fetishizes a kind of community building—one with internal jargon, jokes etc.—that would be extremely gendered in some cases. This is also why many many such minimalist groups continue to be white, middle-class, and (most times) male. Or, as the example of Mr. Money Mustache in the book shows, one that tacitly approves of gentrification moves in a city.

Perhaps this is the offline island bubble that is problematic in many ways that has to be theorized before we all assume that all offline life is sustainable, good, and ethical in spite of them being exclusionary, homogeneous, and quite frankly, class-blind.

The Politics of Data Minimalism

The politics of minimal data consumption not only includes more complex conversations about sustainability and environmental concerns (which the book does not touch upon at all); it is also about what it means to organize a political consciousness in the 21st century without falling into the trap of technological pitfalls—which includes poor mental health due to people having to be bullied online on race/gender/sexuality issues, issues of inclusion, and the already mentioned issue of handing sensitive data to tech giants. The politics of social media, I would argue, is also the politics of organization—not just of your own data and how that is used by social media giants to monitor public opinion about a regime—but also of organizing communities. Grassroot level community organizations should be diverse and inclusive bodies of people and in including an example like F3nation, it is a veritable fetish of men working out together that Newport ends up championing in his book.

The danger of this is not simply in my finding it blandly centrist; the danger of digital minimalism being seen as a cute productive hack to getting more done while not advocating structural changes in the data game is the reason why people who come from diverse backgrounds stay glued on to their phones: to find a community that keeps them mentally sane in a world where every whiff of political action often becomes the caricatured apolitical bubble that helps one’s productivity.

day 8: i have decided to become boring

I am, in many ways, the incorrigible news-junkie. It is probably because I am from Bongaigaon and if you are from Bongaigaon, you have to know things to make sure that you are still a part of a world, any world. So I became a news-junkie. The compulsion to have read up on everything from Elvis’ meeting with Nixon to the Bodyline series to knowing about every Yung-1 sneaker silhouette ever released is something that I cannot stop myself from feeding my brain. Data, you see, is my drug. It has not always been an easy relationship. But mostly, it has been something I have been able to channel: for instance, collating stories on the anti-CAA protests in India and then the violence that followed was something that definitely kept me sane during a very difficult period of 2019 where I felt nothing but helplessness.

Given this background, this coronavirus induced self-quarantine has been something that has given most of us a chance to reflect. For many of us who live away from home it is also the time we have spent anxiously holding on to live-tickers; one in Europe and one that is elsewhere. This has been a source of the kind of anxiety I have never known in my life. Being the anxious person I am, at some point I was staring at the Deutsche Welle site having read the same ticker that refused to update at 4 am; this is when it clicked: I have to change something.

On being Data Conscious

It is not something that I am declaring that is new. I have always maintained that we have to change our relationship to data because, as more and more data goes out, the more vulnerable we become to the technology that is supposed to make us more social. This is where we have to do the hard work because staying away from the Facebooks and the Instagrams of the world means that you have to find your own ways of dealing with something that is not just philosophical (as Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism points out, quite rightly) but also something deeply ethical. It has to do with how much you enable a tech-giant like Facebook and Google to use your data. Even as Facebook and Google tell you about the “local” businesses you should be supporting, we are still at the mercy of their data algorithms. Recently, due to technical issues, a lot of links connected to the coronavirus outbreak suddenly became “against community rules”. It was later attributed to a bug. Even if we take this up as something of an “honest mistake”, I do feel terribly insecure about depending on the Zuckerbergs of the world to read news, or not to have access to them because of a bug. Hence, I find this to be the right time to re-evaluate my own relationship to Facebook and its products (Instagram and Whatsapp, of course).

Social media, in general, has contributed to a lot of grief but I am also worried about what it means to live outside it for a while to understand how I can use it in a manner that actually makes sense. Staring down the infinite scroll when you are away from home and are worried is probably one of the most awkward silences one can find oneself in. And in the last few months, given all that has happened, for better or worse, this has been a constant emotion that I have felt. So, after going through half of Newport’s book, I have decided to become boring.

What does that mean?

For one, I don’t think I ever want to have another open-ended conversation on a long thread with a stranger trying to convince them that maybe lynching people is not a good thing. As for a more general principle, I want to fundamentally change the way I am consuming things. This means, having more time to actually meet and stay in touch with people by having conversations. I am in disagreement with Newport here who is, by all accounts, underestimating how much a long email works like a letter in the digital age. He does seem to be against all texts and wants people to have analogue conversations. I am a little more deliberate than that when I write people and hope to maintain contact with a few friends by writing mails.

The biggest problems that I can imagine would be simply knowing far less than anyone in real-time. I would also miss a few events because of the fact that the events page on Facebook is, for all purposes, one of the most crowded ones. I do want to think that Cal Newport’s practice idea that we can always bookmark that page and then use it once a week is something I would eventually end up doing—once this whole coronavirus thing is over.

Additionally, there would be all the information about people graduating, getting married, getting jobs etc. that I would also miss out on. But I guess that would mean that I would simply write people and reach out individually. Which is really not a bad thing.

As of now, I plan to not do anything else on my Facebook. Or Instagram. Now is the time to be boring and calm. I cannot wait for it.

P.S. I am not a digital minimalist. Not yet, in any case. But I was very glad to have found an audiobook version of the book Digital Minimalism on Libby, which is an app by Rakuten. If you are someone who has access to a public library, you probably also have access to Libby. It is simply one of the best apps I have ever come across. Libraries are the best things in the world. They represent the very best of what we have on this planet.

Photo credit: Hunter Harritt on Unsplash

day 6: love in the time of corona

It is 01:00 am. The GAPS conference has been cancelled. Things seem bleak in a way that is soul-sucking. The last few days have been difficult for precisely two reasons:

it is so hard to stay focussed on anything with a pandemic going on

it is so hard to stay focussed. Period.

We all have our ways of calming down, I am certain. It is just that with the-end-of-the-world kind of panic coming to us through our screens, it is simply hard to have anything else on your mind. This is where my partner—wonderful as he is—told me to get away from my phone. It is really hard; I know because I tried. But this also about not neglecting mental health in the time of corona. I know that Love in the Time of Corona is precisely the kind of literary pun that people would expect from nerds like us anyway, so yes, it is about ~

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA

If anything, it is about controlling the ever expanding news-feed. Since I was supposed to fly to India, I was hooked on the news-feeds from Europe and India; all the while quite unsure which part of the world would ban the other first. Now it seems unnecessary to stay hooked. This is, dear reader, the time to get rid of your news-feed. Love your mental health, and not your news-feeds. So much of it contributes to your day getting a little more anxious that one would be better off without it. Use time for something else. Here is my plan to have more control of all the data I am consuming right now:

1. Call your parents. Call your friends. Maybe write a few letters. Communication is important; panicking does not help. Since my folks live a few hours ahead of CET, it is always nice to be able to get a hold of them and talk to them before they go to sleep.

2. Switch off your phone. Or set it to the most non-intrusive mode. Android phones do have the Do Not Disturb mode that I have found myself using a lot over the last days.

3. Consume things in a way where you are actually there. At the risk of sounding like an esoteric monster, here is the spiel: do things where you are doing something more than consuming things because it on the auto-play list of your streaming app. If you are watching a movie, do it. If you are staring at your half-finished proposal, do that. Just try to be there. Otherwise more information would simply exhaust you when you are getting out of the internet rabbit-hole on days like these.

Dear reader, step away from the phone. And the screen. Things will get better but for now, take care of yourself. Wash your hands, do things, read a nice book, listen to a nice podcast. Here’s Roman Mars describing things as they are.

The Seduction of Narratives, or why I chose to delete my 19000 tweets

The strangeness of the entire thing is something I am still coming to terms with.

I deleted my Twitter. Almost.

With the recent #deletefacebook drive which has now conveniently become the #deletewhatsapp race, I started to dive deep into my own habits. Full disclosure here: I work for an internet company. Well. I used to work for them. A few days ago my boss told me that the product they were working on has gone into “maintenance” and that my services are no longer required. I am not terribly emotional as a person and I am very certain that I possibly took the entire thing better than anyone thought I would. I became aware of the entire depth of the shock: I am being let go. No. I am being fired. There was a strange moment of clarity in my head. This was the moment I saw what my job was, or what I was doing for my company as my job.

I loved doing my job for two reasons: I loved writing to people and tell them that I wanted to get them paid for their job without making them create extra content and I liked the idea that this product that we were a part of was genuinely one that I would use in order to support artists and creative film makers as well. What it also was – and this took some time for me to figure out – was looking to make “influencers” out of these creatives. This was a drive to get these influencers on-board. I have no problem with someone making a living as an influencer. I am certain many things, like streetwear and fashion, would not have Virgil Abloh or Blazendary without the role of influencers in today’s day and age. However, there is something incredibly strange about asking these people to connect their Twitter feeds, their Tumblrs, their Youtubes and Githubs for them to get paid. There is a narrative here which is then traced with these little links being put up and saying, “Here I am!” For me, this seduction of showing the perfect narrative with one line connecting my Facebook to my Twitter to my blog to my LinkedIn was a moment where I decided that I am consciously going to change the way I put up things online.

If writing things and posting it is so easy, there is a reason for it. People are drowning in information and they do not need another tweet telling about the next Kanye West tweet or the next Trump covfefe moment. The strength does not lie in my tweeting of it. You are making the medium the focus when your tweet about something gives the algorithm the knowledge that something worthwhile must be happening in that Kanye tweet or that Trump tweet.

The problem is that every time I did tweet, I was not only paying the website (not just Twitter) data and attention, but I was also building a narrative about myself. This seduction of the narrative comes from the very simple: “XYZ platform is more fun with friends; check your email to find who are already a part of it”. The moment we are all here, the moment we have all decided to write, joke, taunt, scold, scream and talk about something, we have already become a part of this. This is not just frightening because we should all be afraid of giving our data (we signed up for it the moment we use a website); what is more frightening is the absolute necessity for the profile to work was to put forward an incredibly realistic view of your life where your favorite things on one medium were also your favorite things in the other one. The frightening thing is that we are running between consuming data and presenting a mimetically representable “us” in all media or running the risk of being rather schizophrenic and scatterbrained about it by writing about HTML in one post and Paris Hilton in the other even though that is precisely what our life is like anyway.

So I, the person who was lurking around people’s Twitter profiles to use for work before getting fired, decided I am going to learn how to do things again. I will not be seduced by the joy of presenting a narrative to you or to anyone. This space – this blog that is read by nobody, perhaps – will be the place where I shall learn how to navigate the web anew.

I am learning how to code these days. I am also learning Python 3 and CSS. I might as well learn the elements of the environment I have been inhabiting anyway. In addition to that I am more and more certain that open source and paid content for consuming data on the internet is something we have to get used to. And no, open source and paying for the data you are going to consume are not two completely different things. That argument is for another day, obviously. I am going to have a dedicated page for my process of debugging my online world and use this space – this blog – as a roadmap. If you go to my Twitter right now, there are two tweets. One is a silly self-conscious one and the other one is because my good friend Michael Creighton the poet is fabulous. This is not about getting myself offline again. This is about being more sane online. I am going to be fully responsible about the way I consume the data that is then targeted at me through ads. I am going to be fully responsible about the data I am sending out to the world.

So here we are: Hello World!

 

Edit: I did add another tweet after writing this post. I suppose that does count as well. Make that three tweets.