• Marisa Guerin

Wrestling with the Smartphone

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. – March 2, 2019

I’m feeling newly inspired by a book: “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”, by Cal Newport. And grateful – I’m in need of a digital detox.


Starting about three years ago, my news-reading-enabled smartphone became a magnet for my attention. Why three years? Like lots of people, I couldn’t look away from what was happening to the national political scene in the US and distressing events across the globe as well.


Consequently, I am one of the many people who started subscribing to significant news sources and reading more widely. But I didn’t subscribe to paper versions – instead, I have on-line subscriptions. And conveniently, my phone can access these sources of news any time, along with a look-see at what is happening on Facebook. Combine that easy access with the increase in free time since I retired, and I have created a monster!


The good news is that my politics-induced anxiety has subsided a good deal; it had stimulated a great deal of activism in me and many others, and that activism materially changed the balance of power in the US Congress and reawakened civic engagement. I don’t feel impelled to check every few hours to make sure that the world is still in one piece; my energies have channels through the political process. And through my reading I’ve absorbed more perspective on the economic and social realities that have to be coped with regardless of who wins or loses elections. So that’s all good.


The bad news, unfortunately, is that the digital addiction habit stayed after the anxiety left! So now, I’m in a similar territory to my youngers, the folks who have grown up with smartphones. The ones who say, “We’ve been talking” when they mean “We’ve been texting.” The ones who consider it rather rude to call someone on the phone unannounced. The world of continuous connection and simultaneous isolation.


This is the context in which I found so much value in Cal Newport’s book (“Digital Minimalism”). It’s a clear work – written the way an information scientist would write, laying out the point of a chapter, making the point, moving on. And yet it’s both thoughtful and sympathetic, encouraging and practical.


Part I, “Foundations”, opens out the problem of the digital environment, why it is so addictive, how to embark on digital de-cluttering. That part was informative and useful. Even better, Part II, “Practices”, goes beyond useful to inspiring and motivating. It reminds us elders of what used to be normal in life, and perhaps it introduces youngers to alternatives they have little experience with. This second part focuses especially on three practices: solitude, relationship, and creative leisure -- the things Newport suggests you focus on after you have broken the addiction.


It's a surprisingly effective book and might be especially important for parents of teens and young kids to read. Here are some illustrative quotes from the sections on solitude and on relationships.

Solitude Deprivation - A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
“…when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.
When an entire cohort unintentionally eliminated time alone with their thoughts from their lives, their mental health suffered dramatically. On reflection, this makes sense. These teenagers have lost the ability to process and make sense of their emotions, or to reflect on who they are and what really matters, or to build strong relationships, or even to just allow their brains time to power down their critical social circuits, which are not meant to be used constantly, and to redirect that energy to other important cognitive housekeeping tasks. We shouldn’t be surprised that these absences lead to malfunctions.”

The practices recommended for finding renewing solitude are simple - don't put earbuds in while waiting in line or riding a bus or going to school. Turn off FB notifications. Write letters to yourself in a journal. Get away from time to time without a smartscreen. Put the phone in a Sabbath bag. Take long walks and notice things, think about things. (Remember, he doesn't suggest these practices until you have suppressed the addictive behavior and have new-found available time - that's what Part I is about.)


In the section on relationships, Newport suggests re-calibrating our definition of relationship from “connections” (=clicks) to “conversation” (=real time person to person engagement).

“The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call — so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive — basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging — doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection.”
“In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.”

Makes perfect sense to me -- although harder to act on than to imagine.


I don't include quotes from the section on creative leisure, but I like very much his advice to "make or fix something with your hands every week." His sense is that the physical world, and our bodily engagement with it, is the most fulfilling source of leisure renewal, rather than passive reception of entertainment - which has its place, but isn't the same thing as writing, or dancing, or gardening, or rewiring a lamp.


There are both personal and professional implications for me in this book. At a personal level, I’m inspired to do better battle with the smartphone addiction. For example, I’ve removed Facebook and Linked-In from my phone – I can check them a few times a week from my desktop. I’ve done the same for a good many of my news sources, leaving the few there that I really do want to check a couple times a day. I have yet to lock news-reading into specific time-frames -- some “rules”-- but I’m working on it. Luckily, my media lifestyle is already minimalist in other respects -- I don't watch TV, have no Twitter account -- so there’s not much else to get in the way of my hopes for re-engaging my solitude (via journaling) and my relationships (more phone calls, visits).



At a professional level, the section on conversation validates a curiosity I have had for many years. In my consultant role, I was often included in my clients’ meetings, and many of those were held via teleconference or video conference. And I certainly communicated a lot via email. Since many of my clients were religious communities or institutions, I would wonder: where along the continuum from physically present to text on a screen did the “enspirited” nature of the group dynamic become attenuated and disappear? I was thinking about the trust that “where two or more are gathered”, there also was the Spirit; I liked the notion of a “spiritual interiority of a group”, as it was named by Protestant theologian Walter Wink. I had the same curiosity in business client groups, wondering if the productivity and creativity of geographically-dispersed teams suffered when it came time for complex or emotionally-impacted work.


I knew that at in-person meetings my clients used time for sharing personal reflections, and that they related to one another as they worked with an awareness of emotion, interpersonal dynamics, physical needs, creative energies, and all kinds of other intangible features of a “meeting”. And I could observe that a good many of those attributes were still available to them via video conference – the visual and audio cues were still there, even if the other senses were cut off.


I was doubtful if the dynamic "interiority" of a group was still evoked in a multi-person teleconference with only audio presence, although I think it is possible in a two-person conversation with a good connection. When it comes to digital only, I’m quite positive the spiritual interiority is gone by the time we are looking at emails and text messages. Granted, the digital methods do ensure that work is pointed and efficient, and lots of meetings are truly a waste of time, but still...


Why might this be significant? Well, for groups of any kind, there are times when you want the people who have been convened to be creative together, or to work through a conflictual situation, or to deepen their bonds. All of those purposes, and many others, require that the people be in what Newport calls “conversation”, and not just “connection”, accessing the intangible human energies that are conveyed during real-time engagement.


Newport uses a funny image in his book as he argues for the value of real conversation among people, versus digital clicks:

“Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.

I’m game for giving that Ferrari in my brain a chance to do its stuff… are you in?

Feel free to call me anytime!