It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.Charles Dickens (1859)
The start of a new decade is a good enough reason to start afresh and shed the bad habits of the past ten years. The 2010s will (or should) go down as a decade where the growing confluence of human capabilities (or, perhaps more accurately, limitations) and technological progress led to situations that can politely be called complicated.
At the start of the last decade, I pointed out that “in our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention,” and that a mindset that may seem “narcissistic” was going to become the “defining the ethos for the new Internet-connected age as we go along.” As someone who had been blogging for a decade at that point, I experienced this idea of a self-curated persona earlier than most. As platforms became simpler and larger, it became easier to live very public lives. And then we lost control — we became too absorbed and addicted to the narcissism drug.
We don’t have to look beyond Twitter — specifically, tech Twitter — to see how we are addicted to likes and retweets. We have created an echo chamber, where the end goal is to create an audience for the sake of having an audience. Social media has become an ego trap waiting to suck you in and make you the most self-absorbed version of yourself. It is easy to blame the platforms, but the reality is that platforms only amplify what’s within. The end of civic discourse, the rise of ego, and the lack of self-control are all our own fallacies.
Over the past few months, I have started to slow down and reduce my social media consumption It’s not that I don’t see the utility in these platforms. I love communicating with the wonderful photographers I find on Instagram. I adore finding amazing stories to read on Twitter. However, IG likes —and the views — are vapid and meaningless. On the other hand, a private discussion that deepens one’s sense of the why of someone else’s image can be pretty valuable. Twitter DMs are a consistent source of connection and joy.
Still, we could all benefit from exerting a bit of self-control, especially now that we recognize the challenges posed by these addictive platforms. Sure, there is a cottage industry of Silicon Valley men who have made a career out of quasi-apologies and blaming the platforms. But Rose Eveleth puts it best in her opinion piece for Wired:
Here is perhaps where journalists should fess up to being part of this problem. We love a personal redemption story, even if it’s ultimately toothless. By allowing individuals to take responsibility for the digital mess we’re in, the media perpetuates the “great man” myth. This not only misrepresents how technology is built and deployed, it impedes discussion of meaningful solutions and progress. When journalists overstate one person’s role in creating the problem, we also overestimate their ability to fix it.
It is foolish to think that a company like Facebook, which prays at the altar of growth and ever-rising stock prices, is ever going to change. No Twitter employee is ever going to refuse higher engagement that leads to more advertising impressions and, thus, to better revenues — and who knows, maybe profits someday. And if you think anyone is going to opt for advertising-free models for these services by paying a monthly fee — dream on. (YouTube is struggling to find enough takers for its paid service, even though it throws in free downloads, YouTube music, and other perks.)
As individuals, the onus is on us. We need to have self-control. It is the only way we can wrest back control over our own digital — and actual — lives. Cal Newport, a computer science professor and well-known author of Digital Minimalism has some easy and great suggestions for how to do it.:
- Read. He recommends reading 3 to 4 books a month. I think even one book a month is a good goal to start with.
- Move. He says you should go for a walk every day. He is right. I walk every day, mostly with my camera, and get six-to-eight thousand steps every day. It allows me to think and actually experience life — as opposed to the social media interpretation of life.
- Connect. He says to talk to 20 different people during a month-long challenge. It is a great idea. Previously, as a journalist, and now as an investor, I have been fortunate enough to talk to a lot of people, and I can tell you that it is just a fantastic way to fertilize my brain and plant seeds for fresh thinking. However, as Newport suggests, “you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.”
- Make. The good professor says to make something — and he is 100% right about this, too. Photography has kept anxiety and depression (that come from too much online usage) at bay. I am learning to draw.
- Join. He says we should be part of something that meets weekly. I don’t know how you do this — I don’t really like being in groups. However, I do join other photographers and like-minded people to talk about stuff I like. For example, Japanese watches.
To his excellent suggestion, I would add one suggestion of my own: write a daily journal. This practice slows you down, makes you think about the day ahead, and replay the day that was. It allows you to appreciate things you found helpful and inspiring. And learn from your mistakes.
You can use Jour — it is amazing. I personally am old fashioned enough to use a paper journal and a fountain pen with my favorite ink. By the way, Azur is my color for 2020.
Look, we are not going to wish the digital life away. It has helped make things too convenient. It allows life to be more efficient. There is nothing wrong with staying in touch with friends and family via a messaging app. Or finding great news stories on Twitter (Though, I do think Jack should focus on making Twitter a great news discovery platform instead of wasting its time on other nonsense).
However, there are things we as people can do to take control of our own habits, our own time, and the tools we use. And yes, we should take our time, attention, and dollars and give it to little companies, not technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook.
Here is to the beginning of this new decade of self-control.
January 1, 2020