Digital. Physical. Minimal.

March 27, 2019

Reading time ~4 minutes

When I was young I was very excited about the new personal computer technology. This is why I pursued a career in the field of technology. However, my excitement turned into concerns as I saw more and more negative effects of technology in society and in my own life.

I always struggled with the addictive nature of digital services. This is not only my personal weakness but by design. Every time you open a website or app and scroll down there is new content. Your brain reacts with the distribution of Dopamine. This mechanism is consciously used in games when you get loot as a reward for killing enemies, open loot boxes (this is one of the reasons I quit the games industry). When you suffer from addiction one way to heal is by making a withdrawal cure. Unfortunately, for me quitting computer usage is not an option if you are studying computer science. I found a way to increase my time away from a screen by buying a new printer to reduce my printing costs and since then I print almost all my learning material. Examining our digital media consumption has become a topic of interest for many people.

After Cal Newport published the very interesting book „deep work“, where he dissects concentrated and productive work, he wrote another book in a similar direction. This time he takes a look at digital media usage. The book is titled „Digital minimalism“ and in it, he is now focusing on the impacts of technology on our attention, productivity and mental health. I won’t spoil you all the content of the book but suggest that you read it. Here, I want to show you my experience with digital minimalism and how I incorporated some learnings based on this book.

Definition of digital minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

Newport suggests introducing guiding rules about technology use. I implemented the rule to only check twitter on Saturday. So far this works great. Another rule I introduced is that I am not allowed to use my phone when I am in my bed. I am currently experimenting with an Apple watch to reduce my smartphone use. It is not possible to play music from Spotify and the watch with my Bluetooth headphones alone, which is disappointing. This might be Apple’s way of pushing their own service. However, I can put my smartphone in my backpack, so that I cannot reach it but still have some controls over the music I am listening.

I finally deleted facebook. I only regretted it once, when I wanted to reach a friend, which I haven’t seen in years. Luckily we both have an Instagram account, so I was able to message her anyways. I was preparing for this, as I already introduced in my introduction post. This blog is a means to still give me a voice in cyberspace.

We have introduced digital minimalism, and now we want to complete the picture. Before I got into contact with digital minimalism, I followed a lifestyle which was known by the simple label „minimalism“. The label minimalism is not only known for a lifestyle philosophy but also known for a design principle or a type of aesthetic. You don’t have to like the minimalist aesthetic and still follow the minimalist lifestyle. Let’s term this lifestyle „physical minimalism“ so we can better distinguish it from the ideals of digital minimalism.

Everyone has a little different definition of physical minimalism. My interpretation is that a minimalist rejects ownership to spend more time dealing with meaningful interactions. The core of minimalism is having more by owning less. Owning stuff is seen as a means of experiencing. Owning stuff just for the sake of calling something your private property has no value. In fact, and this is really important, owning stuff can be harmful as ownership creates responsibility and opportunity costs. Therefore, many minimalists love the sharing economy, where you rent objects.

When I started to get into minimalism I got rid of all the stuff I did not need. It is basically the principle which became once again really famous with Marie „Does-it-spark-joy“ Kondo. This is a very long process if you don’t throw everything in the trash. I looked at everything I owned and asked how I value it. I asked about the function, whether I should replace stuff with higher quality stuff etc. Therefore over time, my interest in interior design increased. This is a little problematic because now it can happen that I focus too much on owning stuff again - a principle I try to reject.

There is a debate whether (physical) minimalism is post-consumeristic. I believe that it can be, and it should, but it is not inherently.

Both physical and digital minimalism are two aspects of one idea: Less is more. You can pick one, but to complete the picture both should be combined.