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The Case For Digital Minimalism
Dedicated devices are the vibe shift we need.
I traded my smartphone for a dumbphone to simplify my life. Then I revived my iPod. Then I bought a GPS. Then I bought a point-and-shoot camera.
You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?
Technically, yes. Psychologically, no.
While there’s an undeniable ease-of-use factor to housing a phone, internet browser, entertainment center, camera, and GPS in a lightweight rectangle that fits inside my pocket, the proximity of each of these tasks to one another leads, inevitably, to constant distraction. If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect angle for a photo while your Instagram post is blowing up, or answer a work email while your mom is calling you, you know what I mean.
On the surface, it makes sense that smartphones are designed for multitasking: They’re good at it. The humans who use them, however, are not. In an article for Harvard Business Review published in 2010, just as smartphones were becoming popular, Paul Atchley relayed the findings of cognitive science:
Multitasking does not exist, at least not as we think about it. We instead switch tasks. Our brain chooses which information to process. For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, so when you talk on the phone to a client and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what the client is saying.
In other words, what’s happening in a mind attempting to tackle multiple projects at once is less like Tetris and more like ping-pong. This back-and-forth has negative consequences for efficiency, long-term memory, and creativity.
On the other hand, with devices dedicated to single tasks, one doesn’t need to exert mental energy in order to block out distraction. Focus is pre-built into the experience. Now, when I need to travel to a new location, I plug in the GPS. When I want to take photos, I grab my camera. When I want to listen to music, I pop my headphones into my iPod. The common denominator between these activities? No phone required. My phone, now a device dedicated to texting and calling, sits at home unless it’s performing one of those functions.
This decision has improved my quality of life. While doing less, I think more, engaging deeply in the task at hand. This experience recalls a time when devices were tools used to accomplish specific objectives, and accomplish them well; to expand our attention, not demand it.
For many of us, this time—not long ago—feels far away.
But new developments are emerging on the scene to poke holes in unstated assumptions about what our devices exist to do and whose interests they serve. They paint an alternative vision of the future—less cyberpunk, more solarpunk—where technology serves people instead of the other way around.
Take Sony’s line of Walkmans, which keep alive the dedicated music player in an era when most people store music on the cloud via their phones. Or the unexpected resurgence of vinyl records among people of all ages, even those who grew up long after the heyday of the LP. Or the critical and commercial success of EA’s recent remake of “Dead Space,” a game originally released in 2008: The remake eschews game industry trends—offering a limited story instead of one that’s constantly updated, a guided experience instead of an open world, a one-time payment instead of a milieu of microtransactions—and shines for its limitations.
While some of the positive reception of these products can be attributed to nostalgia, that isn’t the entire picture. Some people simply enjoy the experience of hearing a song sans the interruption of a notification bell, playing an album from start to finish, or becoming immersed in a single compelling story. They find value in focus.
I do too. That’s why I ditched my smartphone and bought a Light Phone, a device defined more by what it doesn’t do than what it does. The absence of attention-grabbing features like social media apps, an internet browser, or a camera, clears the path for its users to exercise presence in other areas of life.
In shifting users’ focus away from their phones, products like this herald a change in users’ relationships with themselves and one another: a world in which the quality of everyone’s attention is improved. Indeed, this fantasy recently became reality at a small private high school in Massachusetts, where administrators banned smartphones, instead giving each student a Light Phone. In a video explaining the shift, Buxton School students describe how their initial resistance to the policy gave way to appreciation. Some faculty also highlighted the positive impact not of the Light Phone’s presence, but of the smartphone’s absence. “I see a huge, huge change in anxiety and depression amongst the kids,” said an instructor. “They’re more confident too.”
And yet, despite their positive experience with tech that offers less, most students plan to return to their smartphones upon graduating. Why?
Most likely, this degree of disconnection is difficult to maintain beyond the bubble of the school, where everyone else is disconnected too. One student, who said she was interested in Light Phones before Buxton adopted them, described her reservation at the prospect of isolating herself from others. “When I’m here, if it’s like an entire community that’s on Light Phones, it’s a lot easier to make that switch.”
Likewise, a faculty member attributed his ability to “go light” to the school’s top-down policy. “I was really happy to have an excuse to free myself,” he said.
These testimonies suggest that major social change takes a village. Meaning, until the village gets on board, digital minimalism will likely remain a habit of the few and the weird who see the upside of being exiled from the group-chat.
But they also suggest a bubbling desire for change.
What if recent trends like the return of the 1990s grunge aesthetic signify more than a passing penchant for baggy jeans and weather-beaten flannels? What if, as Harper’s Bazaar suggests, they suggest a hunger for “authenticity and human connection”? Likewise, what if the vinyl and Walkman holdouts, practitioners of the “digital sabbath,” van lifers, and dumbphone owners are more than Luddites? They seem to be tapping into something profoundly human: a yearning to shed the myriad responsibilities and distractions that define and delimit life in the digital age and, instead, embrace a degree of psychological freedom.
Indeed, as more of us look up from our screens and at one another, recognizing our shared humanity, we may be less afraid to stand apart when that means protecting our time, attention, and relationships. Then we can acknowledge what’s been true all along: We don’t need an excuse to free ourselves.
Talia Barnes is a writer and multimedia artist exploring media, culture, and expression.
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