BY BOB McKINNEY
A couple of years ago as I strolled down a grocery store aisle, a young man approached me, smiling.
I immediately recognized him as a friend of one of my children from adolescent days. It took a second to remember his name, but when I did, I called him by that name as I shook his extended hand.
What was odd, however, is how he did not speak to me. When I asked him the routine “How are you?” — he pointed to his ears and raised his eyebrows.
He then spoke, but not to me. He was talking on his phone, listening through the tiny buds planted in his ears and speaking into a wire hanging around his neck. He then went on his way, still without speaking a word to me.
I felt embarrassed and awkward when he made it clear the conversation in which he was engaged on his phone trumped any he might have with me on the grocery store aisle.
I don’t even have the equipment to talk on my phone while walking around, but I made a mental note to myself: don’t ever do that.
Unfortunately, in our wired society, there are more opportunities than ever to forget good manners.
Topics such as this are addressed in an excellent book I recently read, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport.
Newport is clear that technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. But he encourages users to make it work for them rather than the other way around.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but when this book came to my attention, I put my name on the list at the library to have it sent to my electronic reader (a part of my own digital life that I manage responsibly, thank you).
It was a couple of months before it showed up in my queue, and I had forgotten about it. When I got around to reading it, I was enlightened.
The book is divided into two parts. In Part 1 Newport explains the “philosophical underpinnings of digital minimalism” and the way digital products and devices have invaded our lives, often to the point of being intolerable. He ends Part 1 with the suggestion of a “digital declutter” in which a person steps away from what Newport calls “optional online activities” for 30 days.
At the end of that period, an evaluation is made, and the user decides what, if anything, he/she will reintroduce and at what level, based on how that technology supports something the user values.
In Part 2, Newport examines ideas and practices to make a life of digital minimalism sustainable, with references to Thoreau’s celebrated reflection on simple living, Walden.
He does not advocate extreme measures of going off the grid, living in the woods or turning off your electricity, nor is he preachy or condescending. He simply challenges readers of his book to consider, or reconsider, how they use technology and be honest with themselves about how it has affected their lives.
In many ways, before reading the book, I already considered myself a digital minimalist. As I mentioned last week, I don’t participate in social media, other than my sparse LinkedIn profile, which I will likely delete in the next year.
I’m already a voracious reader, a practice the author encourages in place of staring at screens.
I have a blog, which I started as an outlet for my writing a few years before I began writing this column. There are about a half-dozen folks with whom I interact there on occasion, and I enjoy it.
When I considered the author’s suggestion of a digital declutter, I decided LinkedIn and my blog were hardly a problem, as I’ll go days or weeks without looking at them.
What I knew I needed to do, if I wanted to follow his advice, was to take a break from browsing on the internet and watching YouTube videos.
As a news junkie, I developed a habit of glancing at news websites numerous times per day. One tends to lead to another, and another.
I also can become mesmerized through mindless, though harmless, entertainment, and I’ve become a fan of YouTube videos over the past couple of years.
Neither of these are necessarily bad things, but I wondered, if I abandoned each for a month, how I might feel about them after that break. So I took the challenge.
I don’t know that I would call it transformative, but after the break, I am done with browsing the news sites. I realized they did not enhance my life, nor my obtaining news for that matter, in any way.
But staying informed is something I value. I now get news primarily from The Tennessean (both digital and in print) and Brentwood Home Page.
In addition, I receive news alerts on my phone, which I can look at in a matter of seconds (when it’s appropriate and I’m not with someone, as I’ll discuss later). I also still occasionally watch TV news and listen to it on the radio when I’m in the car.
In the event one of the alerts that comes through my phone is something I want to explore further, I’ll do so. I’ve discovered this rarely happens.
As for the YouTube videos, I am allowing myself to watch sporadically but have dialed it way back. In line with Newport’s directive, relaxation is, in fact, something I value. I’ll use these videos for that purpose, similar to watching TV, but on a limited scale.
There were two other things I considered in my digital declutter: podcasts and the use of my phone in general, especially texting. I did not give these up for 30 days, but I thoughtfully considered my use of both.
I love podcasts, and I listen to them only when I’m driving. They are entertaining and informative, and if I have to be driving, I might as well engage my mind. So I’ve decided I’m OK in that regard.
As for the phone, I realized texting had gotten out of hand. I like it because, in general, I don’t like talking on the phone. When texting came around, I loved the way I could communicate without talking.
I am in a group text with my family and another with some college friends. I think it’s a great way to keep up with folks and share photos. Nothing wrong with that.
But I realized, ashamedly, that when I would feel that vibration or hear that “ding” from a text message, I would often stop whatever I was doing, even if I was with someone, to look at that text and sometimes, at that moment, respond.
Some family members were honest enough with me to confirm this. Sadly, this makes me no different from the guy in the grocery store. I’ve owned it and I’m making a change.
Also, I have realized a phone conversation is sometimes the best way to communicate. I have strings of text messages about topics that could have been covered in half the time with a simple phone call. I might not be good on the phone, but I’m a big boy and I can step it up.
With all of this, I have established standards for myself for phone usage. When I’m out to dinner with my wife or anyone else, the phone stays in the car or in my pocket.
The truth is I don’t get that many calls anyway, so this is largely inconsequential. But I certainly don’t have to take a call in a restaurant, and text messages can wait.
If my wife and I are having dinner at home, or simply watching TV together or reading at night, I’m keeping my phone in another room. Again, any calls and text messages can wait.
My phone is linked to my watch (in a very simple way, where I can see calls and texts but cannot respond). If a call or text comes in that is important (again, this is rare), I can quickly address it if I think I need to.
When I take a walk, I might have my phone in my pocket (I could fall, you know, and need to call for help), but I often leave it at home. When I go to the Y, I don’t take it in with me.
These are my standards, based on the evaluation I made after reading this book. Like Newport, I’m not being preachy and saying they should be yours. But if you want to reexamine your life a bit as it relates to the all things digital, I highly recommend Digital Minimalism.
After all, as the author says (and this is my favorite line from the book): “Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.