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The Call to Simplify Our Digital Lives

A zero notification life

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The internet has become endless. Our connection to it, all-consuming. When things get overwhelming, my first instinct is to—simplify.

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

– Hans Hofmann

But how do we simplify an enormous thing that is the Internet? Impossible, almost. Our behaviours moulded by the clever algorithms and habits formed that devalue thinking.

The explosion of social networks is enough to make one unsocial. Nevermind the news, blogs, magazines, shopping, games, videos, podcasts, music, fitness, cooking, forums, communities, learning, productivity, and actual work tools. Phew, and I’ve not even touched on the underground stuff.

All at our fingertips, fighting for attention in our limited time.

Look at Gary Vaynerchuk who built his career and net worth to multimillions by trading the single most valuable asset, your time. He knew to leverage attention, being the lifeblood of today’s digital economy. Then we have influencers, no longer in the domain of celebrity or world leader, but more likely your young neighbour in their loungeroom doing a silly dance.

Every minute given to one thing is a minute away from another—simple, right?

Not so.

When platforms are designed to tap into our behavioural patterns and anticipate our wants and needs, addictive behaviours can manifest. Your internet knows you deeper than some of your friends.

Self-regulation does not come easy to a portion of the population. With the attention economy being less than a decade old, there is not enough data to show lifelong effects.


The Ledger of Harms prepared by the Center for Humane Technology collects compelling studies that show clear effects of social media and tech on the health of society:

Attention—loss of ability to focus without distraction
72% of teens and 48% of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts, social-networking messages, and other notifications

Mental Health—loneliness, depression, stress, loss of sleep, and even increased risk of suicide
When people stopped using Facebook for a month as part of a controlled experiment, they showed an increase in well-being along with a decrease in political polarization.

Relationships—less empathy, more confusion, and misinterpretation
When engaging in debate, people are more likely to understand opposing viewpoints when they use their human voices. Unfortunately, many social media platforms are currently designed to focus on text, reducing human connection during arguments.

Democracy—propaganda, lies, an unreliable and noisy space to talk
69% of participants in a study on false news formed “rich and detailed false memories” that supported fabricated news they were shown. Participants were also 88% less likely to identify the story as false when it aligned with their beliefs. This shows how powerful false news can be when paired with targeted distribution via social media.

Children—children face new challenges learning and socialising
Children who are cyberbullied are 3x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation than non-bullied children, while those who experience “traditional” bullying are 2x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation.

Do Unto Others—many people who work for tech companies – even CEOs – limit tech usage in their own homes
Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of user growth at Facebook, has said that: “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that sh%t. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that sh%t… The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Ledger of Harms by Humane Tech

Their Time Well Spent movement aims to restructure the attention economy and bring back meaningful presence in our daily relationships.


Here are four ways to help improve your digital sanity

Turn off all notifications

Have you checked your phone notification settings lately? It has become so convoluted that we are given the option to create notification styles for each app.

Solution—turn it all off.

Wait, wait, wait I need this for work, I hear you say.

Determine the apps that are absolute musts where you communicate important time-sensitive things with actual people. This includes emergencies.

Turn off the rest. Check these apps when you have the space, rather than be distracted and drawn in by notifications.

Mindful following

Who are you following? Why do you follow them? Is your reason for following them healthy? How is your life enriched?

The old spring clean — keep or trash method applies here.

Delete the non-essential apps

If you haven’t used an app in the last month, think about whether you need it.

If it’s one of those apps that you would only use say, twice a year, consider creating a folder and place it in there along with apps like it. That way, it is not in your face but still accessible when needed.

If you haven’t used an app in the last six months—dude, let go—delete.

Grayscale

This tip I picked up from Humane Tech and have recently implemented. My phone is set to quickly access Grayscale with a triple-tap of the home button. It greys out those pesky red badges so the compulsion to check the phone decreases.

Go to: Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut (bottom) > Color Filters. I use an iPhone and unsure if other phones have this option.

I considered myself pretty minimal when it came to digital presence but somewhere along the line, my rules may have loosened. A couple of weeks ago I felt inundated by the influx of activity from my phone. Granted, I was away from home and it served as my only way of communication.

This led me to switch it off for 48 hours. It prompted a self-audit. The little things that I had in place, such as no notifications, sounds or banners did not seem to help. The little red badges were still in place, and I could see the numbers climbing.

I have a friend who would send ten messages, ten more through a different app, and a handful more through yet another app, regardless of when I respond. It’s not a bad thing, it’s simply a communication style I’ve learnt to adapt to. The height of stress happened when someone random came through Instagram’s direct messages. They said they were suicidal and had no friends to turn to. I sent them a kind note and the website for global suicide lines. Afterwards, I questioned if I could have done better.

For almost a year and a half, I’ve not had the Facebook app. I don’t miss it and logging in through the browser makes me not want to bother most times. I am leading up to deleting it but collecting all information and connections with groups is proving to be a big job. This speaks volumes in how embedded it has become.

Enmeshment is not freedom.

Judging from my moment of overwhelm, there is still plenty of room to simplify.

How do you manage your digital consumption?

Originally published in Stash on 6 November 2019

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