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For the month of October, I am engaging in a “Digital Detox”. I consider it an exercise in mental health. (I will tell you more about this in a moment).
I am inspired by a book I am reading: “Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World” by Cal Newport. Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and has written several books on the interplay between technology and society. Somewhat famously, he has never had a social media account, yet still manages to write and promote his books and blog posts on his web site at www.calnewport.com. He has even launched a podcast this summer.
It may seem contradictory that a computer professor would champion digital minimalism, but this wisdom comes from one who is well versed in both the benefits and promises of technology as well as the pitfalls. He does not promote becoming an anti-technology Luddite, but he does ask the reader to carefully consider the role of technology in one’s life, especially in relationship to one’s deepest values.
Therein lies the rub: Technology has become so pervasive, intrusive, and addictive that some tough love is in order before one can properly assess the role of technology in one’s life.
The method of a digital detox is to first remove from one’s phone or computer those optional-use applications that make money from your attention. (Hello Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other social media app). Turn off notifications from news sources and decide how you want to access news without being interrupted. The detox period that is most effective will be significant: At least 30 days. This is because it will take a period of adjustment (some might say “withdrawal”) and disorientation as old habits are pruned away and new ones evolve.
The time of detox is designed to allow us to rediscover who and what we deeply value, and what brings value to us. Perhaps we will rediscover a deeper connection in our relationships, rekindle an affinity for nature, reading, music, hobbies and other “offline” activities. These are activities that we may discover we have allowed to be crowded out of our lives by intrusive and low value technology surfing.
But wait! We are in the middle of a pandemic, where travel and in-person social interactions are seriously constrained. We even worship and attend annual conference through technology! Just last night my husband and I had a ZOOM visit with our good friends. Are we supposed to become hermits?
Not at all. The advice is to remove optional technologies so we can discover: Is there a way to serve this value that could be improved by fulfilling it in a non-tech manner? Removing social media for a few weeks may inspire us to make an in-person visit or phone call, write a letter or find some other way to reach out. When the detox period is over, we may never return to social media, or we may find that half an hour of social media on the weekend is sufficient. After the digital detox, we are in a much better position to make a considered, personal decision about the role we allow technology to play in our lives.
Cal Newport defines solitude as something we experience when our minds are not receiving input from other minds, whether through TV, reading, social media or any other medium. Solitude is when we have the company of our own thoughts, and take time to reflect or be present to the world around us. Solitude has become an increasingly rare experience, and that is a new phenomenon in human history. Will we miss it? I do. Digital Minimalism can help us reclaim the gifts of solitude and a renewed connection with those we love.