I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of connection, technology, and freedom. These thoughts dovetail nicely with many of the themes in Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism, which I wrote about back in June when exploring the important issue of solitude. In today’s essay, I share some more of Newport’s ideas, along with what I’ve been pondering about my freedom theme for 2019 and how it relates to the ways – and how much – I communicate with the people in my life.
My Two Books are On Sale Now!
But before I delve into those topics, I want to let you know that for a limited time, I have reduced the price of my two e-books. If you’re new to the blog, you may not know that I published two books back in 2014. These books encapsulate some of my best tips and strategies for smart shopping and wardrobe management gathered from the hundreds of posts on my former blog, Recovering Shopaholic. My books are available now for just $2.99 each. You can learn more about them via the links below, and you can also purchase them there if desired:
- Unshopping: Recovery Solutions from an Ex-Shopaholic
- End Closet Chaos: Wardrobe Solutions from an Ex-Shopaholic
Please note that my books are only available in electronic format, but they may be read on any device using the free Kindle app. I have plans to publish additional books in the coming months and years, so stay tuned for news on that soon. Also, I still consider myself more of a “recovering shopaholic” than an “ex-shopaholic,” but the latter worked better for the subtitle of the first book and I kept it the same for the second book for the sake of consistency. I view recovery as a long-term process with ups and downs along the way, but I’ve learned a lot and I’m definitely in a much better place than I was before I started blogging. I know that I will continue to learn and grow – and I also learn so much from the readers who comment and email and share their own journeys. Thank you as always for your wonderful support of me and my writing!
How Technology Impacts Freedom
Now on to the main topic of this post, how technology impacts personal freedom. I’m 53 years old and I can remember a much different world than we’re in today in terms of technology. Looking back, I can recall having to sit at home when I was expecting a phone call and needing to park myself in front of the television whenever my favorite programs were airing. If I needed a bathroom break during one of my shows, I had to wait for a commercial and then hurry to make sure that I was back by my TV before the show started up again. I remember declining invitations to go out so that I could be home in case a guy I was interested in would call me. If I happened to miss his call, I wouldn’t even be aware that he rang me because this was back in the days before answering machines and caller ID.
In many ways, our freedom was limited before technological advancements such as VCRs, answering machines, and pagers came on the scene. We often had to choose between being in contact with people and being out and about, and if we wanted to watch our favorite programs (many of which aired on Friday nights!), we had to decline invitations for going out on the town. I remember being elated when my family bought our first answering machine and VCR back when I was a teenager, as these devices allowed for increased mobility without having to make difficult choices regarding staying in touch and keeping up to speed with the popular shows of the time.
Fast-forward about twenty years later to when cellular telephones became commonplace… I was excited to be able to receive an eagerly awaited call while also being out and about. No longer did I need to plan my activities around being in touch with the people in my life. Text messages made communication even easier because they could be both sent and responded to whenever it was most convenient for the people in question. The advent of these new technologies increased our freedom and mobility, and most of us were grateful for their availability and presence in our lives.
How Things Are Today with Technology and Connection
However, things have become a lot more complicated now that virtually everyone is carrying a smartphone in his or her pocket or handbag. While these devices are certainly convenient in many ways, it’s my opinion that they are also negatively impacting our freedom. There are now seemingly infinite ways to keep in touch with the people in our lives (some of whom are more “friends” than true friends), and the new expectations for availability and response time are often unrealistic.
Many of us are never without our precious devices these days. They are now almost like additional appendages and even accompany their owners into the bedroom and bathroom. I believe that in many ways, modern day technology can be more of a curse than a blessing to us. Not only are we sadly lacking in the solitude we need for creative inspiration, self-reflection, and gratitude, we’re also more prone to anxiety and insomnia.
Additionally, many of us are actually less deeply connected to others than we were back in the “dark ages” when I came of age. The always-on, always connected environment frequently leads people to wade in vast but shallow pools that lack the type of deep interaction that can truly satisfy us. It’s akin to grazing on junk food rather than devouring nutritious meals, which as an aside is also a big problem in today’s modern society.
Few Escapes from Technology
There are few escapes from technology these days. When I’m at the gym, I’m amazed at how many people stop to gaze at social media and text messages in between sets. It’s also now commonplace to hear women talking on their phones or listening to Instagram stories while they’re in public restroom stalls. And when my husband and I go on our regular walks by the water, we’re shocked at how many of our fellow walkers are looking at their phones instead of at the beautiful scenery surrounding them.
What’s so critical that we need to be “on” all the time?
Are we doing it out of any real necessity or is it simply a habit?
Are our devices truly serving our needs or have they become albatrosses around our necks?
I may be in the minority in feeling this, but I find myself longing for the simplicity of the eighties and nineties. I felt a lot freer when I had fewer queues to check and when I didn’t feel the need to spend literally hours each week keeping in touch with people through myriad electronic mediums. I miss the deep and meaningful in-person interactions I used to enjoy with others before cell phones began distracting everyone all the time. I miss those quieter and slower times and sometimes long to completely get off the merry-go-round and go back to living the simpler life of yesteryear. But does that type of life even exist anymore? Is there any way to quell the anxiety I feel about technology and connection?
Connection vs. Conversation
It’s here that I turn to the powerful insights shared by Cal Newport in his most recent book, Digital Minimalism, one of which is the distinction between connection and conversation. At face value, it appears that social media platforms enable us to more easily connect with the people in our lives, which should lead to less social isolation. However, a 2017 study conducted by the University of Pittburgh and reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine concluded that people in the highest quartile of social media use are three times more likely to experience loneliness than those in the lowest quartile of usage. Another 2017 study jointly conducted by U.C. San Diego and Yale University found that the use of Facebook is negatively associated with well-being related to physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
The studies mentioned above underline a paradox of social media, that it can make us feel both connected and lonely. The researchers were initially surprised at their findings, as you may be as well in reading them. However, the negative impacts of social media have to do with the degree of usage. The bottom line for most people is that the more they use social media to connect with their online networks, the less time they devote to offline communication. Replacing our real-world relationships with social media use is what is detrimental to our overall well-being, and this is often what happens due to the ease of use and the addictive nature of Facebook and other such platforms.
To further illuminate the findings of the studies highlighted above, Newport outlines a powerful distinction between connection and conversation. The distinction between these two concepts was originally covered by Sherry Turkle in her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation. Connection refers to the low-bandwidth interactions that generally define our online social lives, while conversation refers to the richer and higher-bandwidth communication that typically occurs during real-world encounters.
When we communicate with others face-to-face, we are more fully present with each other and more readily develop good listening skills and empathy. Because in-person conversation unfolds slowly, we also learn patience and the ability to interpret tone and nuance. We’re simply not able to learn the same skills when communicating via our digital devices. Thus, the more we shift away from face-to-face interactions and toward online connection, some of the critical communication skills that have served humans for eons are declining and many of us are finding our communication less fulfilling.
Newport Recommends Conversation-Centric Communication
Newport contends that conversation is the only form of interaction that actually “counts” toward maintaining a relationship. He doesn’t believe that conversation has to happen face to face, but it does need to involve Sherry Turkle’s criteria of nuanced analog cues, such as vocal tone and facial cues. Thus, phone calls and video chats can also be considered conversations. However, textual interactions – meaning all social media, email, text, and instant messaging – do not count as conversations and are instead considered to only be forms of mere connection.
In conversation-centric communication, connection is used only for logistical purposes, such as to arrange conversation or to exchange practical information. It’s no longer a substitute or alternative for communication; it’s only used to support it. Those who choose to adopt Newport’s recommendation might still maintain social media accounts for the aforementioned purposes, but they would refrain from their previous habits of browsing these tools throughout the day, “liking” other people’s posts, posting their own updates, and monitoring feedback on their posts. They would probably still use text messaging on occasion as well, but only to make arrangements and to ask and respond to quick questions. Only real conversation would count and connection would no longer be viewed as a viable alternative.
This recommendation is in line with what I mentioned above about wanting to return to the simpler ways of communicating of yesteryear, so it appeals to me. I like that it doesn’t complete eschew modern technology, as there is definitely some value in it in terms of its convenience. After all, it’s great to be able to let someone know if you’re running a bit late or to avoid “phone tag” when trying to set up a meeting. But I agree with Newport that deeper conversations are more fulfilling and lead to closer relationships. I also agree that if we spend hours each week – or even each day – on connection types of activities, we have less time, space, and energy for those deeper conversations, whether they happen in person, on the phone, or via Skype or a similar medium.
On the “Like” Button and Social Media Comments
The Facebook “Like” button – and the Instagram and Twitter “heart” icons – play a large role in the slot machine nature of social media because they denote a sense of social approval. These buttons also provide the most minimal level of communication with our “friends” and those we follow on social media. Although clicking a button may seem innocuous, repeating this action teaches our minds that connection is a reasonable alternative to communication. In actuality, clicking like and leaving short comments on other people’s posts does not serve to improve our relationships with those people and instead gets in the way of our cultivating meaningful social lives. Therefore, Newport recommends that we stop doing these things.
While most people believe that they can balance connection and communication, it’s very difficult to do and it’s far too easy to fall back into the habit of prioritizing digital interaction. If you focus on conversation-centric communication, it’s likely that some people will drop out of your social orbit, especially if you had primarily interacted with them over social media previously. But you may want to ask yourself how deep those relationships were anyway if your decision to dial back on social media led to their demise. Perhaps you would be better served by focusing on quality over quantity and choose a smaller number of people with whom to engage in deeper conversations from time to time. I know that there are people in my life who I don’t talk to all that often, but I enjoy the deep interactions I have with them, whether they occur weekly, monthly, or even yearly.
A Few Other Recommendations
In the interest of space, I will just briefly highlight a few more of Newport’s suggestions related to cultivating a conversation-centric communication approach:
- Consolidate texting: The suggestion is to keep our phones in “do not disturb” mode, which means that text messages become more like emails in that notifications are not shown when they arrive. It’s possible to adjust your settings to allow for texts from select people to come through if you’re worried about emergencies, but most messages will be saved until you open the messaging app, which you can do at predetermined and limited times each day. You can reply to texts in bulk fashion rather than individually and at all times of the day.
- Hold conversation “office hours”: Instead of needing to answer the phone whenever it rings, you can institute a practice of having office hours during which anyone can call you and talk to you. For instance, a friend of Newport’s told all of his family and friends that he’s always available to talk on the phone at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, which was when he was commuting home from work. This practice eliminated the need to schedule conversations, so people could just call him whenever they wanted to talk to him and were available at his pre-determined time. You can select a time or times that work best for you, which will enable you to better keep in touch with loved ones with little planning or hassle.
Some Closing Thoughts
While I agree with most of Newport’s assertions and recommendations, I don’t know if I want to take as hard of a line as he suggests. I agree that the majority of social media interactions are hollow at best, but I have derived value and even experienced depth in my online communications. I think that if we keep our social networks small, the interactions we have there can at least bridge the gaps between the times when we’re able to have deeper conversations with others. The key, however, is that we need to make sure that those deeper interactions also occur and that we don’t just take the easy route of clicking “Like” a few times or leaving a few simple comments.
Social media can also be helpful for crowd-sourcing information, especially when it comes to Facebook groups for key interest areas or like-minded individuals. The problem is that many of us belong to far too many Facebook groups and spend far too much time there. This is becoming increasingly common as pretty much anyone and everyone is starting a Facebook group because they’re free and so easy to create.
As for me, I overdid it with my participation on social media so much in previous years that I’ve had a hard time finding a “happy medium” that works for me. I set the precedent of being a person who was readily available on Facebook, so it was really hard for me to moderate my participation there. Also, when I’ve been able to cut down my interaction, I always worried that I was disappointing people and/or missing out on the sense of community that I craved. The problem was that I got to the point where I just didn’t find it all that fulfilling and it also produces a lot of anxiety in me because it feels impossible to keep up, especially since I don’t want to spend much time there anymore.
It definitely seems easier to take Newport’s advice from his previous book, Deep Work, to quit social media altogether, but I’m not ready to do that yet. Perhaps it’s the same foolish part of me that thinks I can moderate my clothes shopping (still struggling with lots of ups and downs there…), or perhaps it’s because I realize that many of those who I believe are my friends will simply forget about me if they don’t see my comments in their Facebook feeds. I also wonder if it’s akin to being a prima donna to insist on communicating in a much different way than others do. If I set “office hours” for the phone, will anyone call? And what if my office hours are at a completely different time than theirs?
I wonder if it’s my people-pleasing tendencies that are getting in the way of my fully embracing Newport’s advice, or maybe it’s my belief that I should be okay with “progress” when I’m really not. What if my version of freedom looks a lot different from others’? What if I truly am okay with having a few long conversations with cherished friends a few times per year and the rest is merely “fluff” to me? I think the bottom line is that we all need to decide upon our bottom lines, what we truly value and what will bring us peace and meaning in life.
As my year of freedom draws to a close, I need to do some soul-searching and decide what I really want and what I’m willing to do in order to get it. If that means that I move more toward the path of being a Luddite, so be it. I don’t think it will actually come to such an extreme, but if it does then I need to honor myself and do what’s right for me. I have to trust that those who love me will honor my needs and my path just as I do my best to do so for them. In the end, it all comes down to self-awareness, communication, and respect. These things are critical, but they’re certainly not easy, but the most valuable things never are…
As always, I welcome your thoughts on anything that I have shared today, from Cal Newport’s recommendations to my own struggles with connection, technology, and freedom. I will likely write at least one more post on the ideas and concepts expressed in Digital Minimalism, and I will definitely give another update or two on my freedom theme for the year before I select a new theme for 2020 (can you believe it’s almost here?!). Those posts will be published soon, along with an update on my “Half Project,” a purchase review, and my thoughts on the loss of my mother-in-law and the grieving process.