The Digital-Physical Divide

I’ve been dabbling in digital minimalism for a few months. Other than a bit of a funk around the election, I’ve mostly removed Twitter and Reddit from my life. My devices are back to serving me: long chats with friends and relatives around the world, high-quality content and productivity when I need it.

I highly recommend doing some sort of digital fast to tame the tech world for yourself. Know thyself is key. I’m not going to binge on back issues of the economist. A foray into r/politics means my evening is shot, blood pressure raised and mood fouled. If you need a guide to get going: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism is the best, albeit austere. Make Time is digital minimalism for the rest of us — simply avoiding your personal infinity pool will get you most of the benefits of Newport’s stricter system.

Something more fundamental

Dru Johnson is fighting the good fight and makes his college students go analog as part of his course. His conclusions go deeper than Newport:

Most college freshmen have ZERO silence in their lives. No sabbath rest. No time for contemplation about their upcoming day in the morning or reflection over it in the evening.

The complete lack of a non-stimulated life is startling. I have a feeling that we won’t fully unpack the effects this is having on people for years: the increased background anxiety, panic attacks, mental health issue and a host of physical problems brought on by a generation of insomniacs under constant stress.

Johnson continues:

Most of them still think the body is secondary to the mind/soul (i.e., they are lazy Platonists of the worst kind). They believe that knowing is essentially the same as being able to do something. It’s mind-over-matterism for them…They realized that their bodies play a majority role in their intellectualism, morality, etc. That ol’ biblical diatribe that “what we do with our bodies shapes us ethically and forms our understanding” turns out to be correct.

This hit home. Going all in on the digital creates a harsh disconnect with the physical world, sense of embodiment and connection the physical space.

The most obvious examples are expats that create digital worlds that bear no relation to the physical location in which they find themselves. But there are more subtle disconnects between experiencing life and reading about it. So much of my Buddhist practice is being aware of the body and coming to terms with being an embodied process. There’s something about living in your head, particularly being too plugged in, that destroys the mind-body connection.

There’s also something fundamental to our mental and physical health about spending time outside, unconnected and in tune with our bodies. As people go for walks wearing AirPods they aren’t really connecting to the outside world or their own bodies.

The cycle of inputs

I still haven’t found a better book about the social media age than the Age of Missing Information, written in 1992.

We believe that we live in the “age of information,” that there has been an information “explosion,” an information “revolution.” While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.

McKibben was lamenting the social changes wrought by cable TV in early 90s. Social media has tipped the balance even more in favor of the ephemeral.

None of this is to say that we need to embrace a neo-luddite outlook. Instead a more intentional use of technology and media is the key.

I give myself time to stare out the window and drink a cup of tea. Rain or shine, I get around 10k outdoor steps a day. I mostly read longer form media and books from a wide swath of time periods. If someone sends me a goofy video on social media, sure I can watch it and laugh, but that’s not my primary input.

Keeping this balance is essential to staying grounded in the digital age.