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Joz Norris

  • Tape 54: A Digital Declutter

A Digital Declutter

Quite by coincidence, I found myself starting to read Cal Newport’s excellent book Digital Minimalism on the 1st of April, in which he puts forward the case for undertaking a month-long “Digital Declutter” in order to rethink and reshape your relationship with technology. It felt like a good opportunity to try and do one myself, so I’ve decided to undertake my own Digital Declutter for the entirety of the month of April, and I thought I’d write a bit about what that means here, and how it’s going so far. If any of you feel like joining me for it, even a few days into the month, you’d be very welcome to try it alongside me and to use this newsletter as a place to share your thoughts/findings/struggles with it – just let me know if you’d like to!

Essentially, Newport’s “Digital Declutter” is about much more than the “Digital Detoxes” you hear about here and there – a digital detox tends to be about taking a break from social media for a bit to get some headspace, before returning to business as usual. Newport feels we need to far more fundamentally reassess and rewrite our relationships with technology, so the “Digital Declutter” is about avoiding all unnecessary tech (ie. everything you don’t need to use for work, or that will have an actively negative impact on your professional or personal life if you avoid it) for a month, and using that time to live deliberately and rediscover what your core values are. When the time is up, you can reincorporate only those technologies that support and align with those core values, and are optimised for your living by those values.

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time – I’ve written about my wariness of tech and social media here before, and have often talked the talk about wanting to invest in bigger, more considered projects that offer longer feedback loops rather than signing up for the short feedback loops and sprinklings of dopamine reward systems offered by lives lived, and work made, online. But although I talk the talk about this philosophy, I don’t really walk the walk – I feel depressed every time I see someone narrating a walk on social media, but I have found myself doing it when I’ve got something I’m trying to promote, and I still compulsively check my phone for messages or emails throughout the day, or feel anxious about “needing” to tweet something in order to “maintain a presence” online, so that sense of concern about the way things are going feels at least partially like a smokescreen for my own guilt at how complicit I am in the attention economy. I feel increasingly unhappy about the signs of behavioural addiction I can observe in myself and others, and think it’s time I did something more deliberate to examine my relationship with those technologies.

Newport points out some pretty chilling stuff about how the attention economy works, about how deliberately tech companies are trying to invade every waking moment of our lives and turn our time into their profit, and encourages readers to find ways to extract value and meaning from tech while refusing to be sucked into giving it much of their time. The truth is, I rarely feel nourished or enriched by my time spent online. I usually come away from time spent online feeling drained, and I only really feel nourished and enriched by the time I spend working in, and interacting with, the physical world (whoa, quelle surprise). The problem with these sorts of “digital minimalist” movements is that they often get unfairly labelled as being anti-progress, or Luddite in some ways, which is why Newport’s was so appealing. Newport is unabashedly pro-tech, and works in computing himself, but firmly believes that technology should be a tool we use to support and enable lives lived in the real world, lives of practical, tangible lived experience, rather than being the primary source of our experience and leisure.

Therein lies the problem, of course, for me, because I have a job that does require some level of engagement with an online community because I make work that I then need to get people to be aware of. My online activity often is working towards the end of supporting tangible experiences – making online content to persuade people to come and see a live show, for instance. But what I wonder is what percentage of the time I spend using digital technology actually supports that tangible stuff, and what percentage of it is time spent thinking “Oh, I ought to come up with something to do on here, because that’s what people do now.” Whatever balance I strike on the other side of this month remains to be seen, but tech certainly doesn’t need to become such a constant background chatter in my life as it has done, so my primary rules for my month of minimal tech are as follows:

  • I can check my emails and messages three times a day – all messaging and communication has to be consolidated into these windows.
  • I can read the news once per day, in the morning, from one source.
  • I can go on social media once a week, on Thursdays, to check messages or share updates about my work, unless there’s some important reason to go on on another day (sometimes shows go on sale at a certain time and you’ve got to jump on it if you want to sell tickets etc – annoyingly, this week has had multiple dates I’ve needed to jump on, but I’m hoping next week I can basically avoid it completely)
  • I can use my computer for writing, editing, designing, and other necessary work, but cannot use it other than to carry out specific, targeted jobs or work on specific projects.
  • I can use Google to research stuff I need to look up while working, or things I want to find out about to support a specific, planned, targeted leisure activity. Other than that, I can’t just Google stuff. I just have to wonder about things, and imagine.
  • I can use Google Maps to plan journeys, and Google Calendar to plan my time.
  • I can only watch TV or films in company, not on my own
  • I’m allowed to listen to music
  • I can take pictures of things I want to remember, but no posting or sharing.

Outside of those, I’ll be trying to limit my activities to analogue stuff, and rediscovering what my relationship with the tangible, physical world is, so that I can then use tech to optimise that relationship when coming out the other side of the Declutter. At the time of this going out, I’m 6 days in, but I’ll save any more considered thoughts on how it’s panning out and what I’ve learned until next week – let me know if you’d like to join in with it!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – A bunch of new Edinburgh shows have gone on sale this week. Oh boy, there’s a lot of great stuff! I’d love you to book a ticket to see my show Blink at the Pleasance, or perhaps to spread the word about it and recommend it to friends if you can’t get to the Fringe yourself. You should also book tickets to Sportsperson by the brilliant Cerys Bradley, which I’m directing! That’s on at Gilded Balloon and it’s gonna be great.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Everything Harry Hill does on Junior Bake Off. Specifically his pretending to have extendable arms. I’m gonna come right out and say it, Junior Bake Off is a better show than the main Bake Off show, and the imagination that Harry Hill puts into his skits puts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas to shame.

Book Of The Week – Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, obvs.

Album Of The Week – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine. This is the second collaborative album by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner. It’s much, much better than their debut, partly because it really amps up the collaborative angle by bringing in a rotating roster of guest stars including Taylor Swift and my favourite new obsession, Anais Mitchell. Bit long, but very good.

Film Of The Week – I’ve been laid up with a horrible cold all week so didn’t manage to get down to the cinema to see Red Rocket, which I was looking forward to, but Miranda saw it and said it was brilliant and gave it 9.5 out of 10. Wish I’d seen it, hoping to catch it somewhere else eventually. Apparently it’s great!

That’s all for this week! Let me know what you thought, and as ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Thanks again, and take care of yourselves until next time,

Joz xx

PS This is Woolly, I am looking after him and he has invaded my bed:

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