Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Unrelatable

My lifestyle is extremely “unrelatable” – at least in the definition of relatability for middle class adults under the age of 45, in a developed country, circa late 2019.

Last week, while attending a prominent tech conference, I was asked: “How do you find the time to do all these projects?” This is the most common question that comes up, right as I answer: “What are you working on these days?” I typically have 3-4 simultaneous freelance editing or film production gigs, plus 2-3 “personal” films in development and I try to do 1-2 pro bono projects a month, helping organizations I admire, with either photo shoots or videos. How do I find the time? Digital minimalism and a strict media diet.

I’m not on Facebook, Instagram, Snap or TikTok and I’ve significantly reduced my time on Twitter to 5-10 minutes a day. My smartphone has very few apps, the strict essentials, with no notifications except for phone and messaging. I haven’t owned a television in almost a decade. I don’t watch Netflix. I read books instead. When you are on such a strict media diet, your days get longer. You can get so much more done, with laser sharp focus. But it’s a relatively lonely club – I’m always longing to find more kindred spirits.

Three weeks ago, I gave a talk after a screening of my documentary The Illusionists. The subject of technology and digital minimalism came up, as they are the central focus of my new documentary The Realists. When I evoked my social media and tech habits – or rather, lack thereof – and how I think they strongly correlate to my power of concentration, lack of anxiety and general well-being, people in the audience smiled and enthusiastically nodded their heads. I sensed a real hunger for this kind of testimonial. Yet, aside from author Cal Newport (Digital Minimalism, Deep Work), I can’t think of any other prominent figure advocating for the benefits of a mindful, restricted approach to media and tech. Why the silence on this issue?

By definition, the loudest voices in our culture, those the media and public pay attention to, now have tools that allow them to broadcast and widely spread their messages instantaneously, to a world-wide audience, any minute of the day. And those like me, who do not engage in those platforms, are, logically, absent from the conversation. But seeing the strong, positive responses to my testimonial spurred me to write about this.

A second reason is that heavy consumers of media – and social media – are the ideal target of advertisers. If you “follow the money” you’d quickly realize that it’s in the interest of big corporations to have people watching lots of TV or spending many hours online. The more eyeballs for ads, the better. And crucially, private data is the new oil. The more we share online, the better, as we constantly train algorithms to serve us content that will keep us interested and engaged (and tuned in)… and this way we offer more clues about the kind of ads that work for us. A person who is offline and whose favorite activity is reading library books, cycling or walking in nature, and seeing friends in real life (away from screens) does not make these companies earn any money.

For these reasons, I actively rebel against “time thieves” (all kinds of media and tech platforms that would like to keep me hooked).

If you have been tempted to scale back on tech and media use, hopefully my words can inspire you to take a step in this direction.

This post is the first in a series about “time thieves” – in the next chapter, I will discuss tips and tricks to achieve digital minimalism, which I heard about or developed on my own – and successfully applied in the last 3 years. But first:

Please, don’t call me a Luddite

In the last 10-20 years, possibly longer, anyone who has dared speak up about the dark side of the web has been quickly dismissed as a “Luddite”. My computer’s dictionary (the irony) defines a Luddite as “a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology”. It offers this example of the term in use: “a small-minded Luddite resisting progress.” But the typical use of the word “Luddite” is based on a wrong assumption. The late cultural critic and author Neil Postman shed light on the origin of the term in his brilliant book Technopoly:

The origin of the term [Luddite] is obscure, some believing that it refers to the actions of a youth named Ludlum who, being told by his father to fix a weaving machine, proceeded instead to destroy it. In any case, between 1811 and 1816, there arose widespread support for workers who bitterly resented the new wage cuts, child labor, and elimination of laws and customs that had once protected skilled workers. Their discontent was expressed through the destruction of machines, mostly in the garment and fabric industry; since then the term “Luddite” has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naïve opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view. They lost. So did all the other nineteenth-century nay-sayers. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton might well have been on their side.

You may think that I’m old fashioned and afraid of technology, since I do not use social media and don’t watch any television or Netflix. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, my tech and media habits may be uncommon, but I am no Luddite in the vulgarized sense of the word. I use technology every day for work:

I’m a proud geek. What I am opposed to and resist are platforms whose business model is based on surveillance capitalism, engineered to make users spend as much time as possible on them, for little or no long term value, who ultimately exploit the data we share for their own benefit.

3 Powerful Reasons to Rebel Against “Time Thieves”

Disengaging from mainstream social media platforms and from the all you can eat buffet of Netflix / Amazon Prime type of VOD services has not been quick or easy. It’s been an effort years in the making. It’s a gradual process that requires strenuous motivation, discipline and restraint. Every day. It’s very easily to fall back under the spell.

In this first post, I won’t mention yet tips and tricks, but rather some powerful words I’ve read over the years that, compounded, finally motivated me to quit certain tech and media habits cold turkey.

1) “Time Thieves” are Stealing The Most Precious Resource We Have

I know what it’s like to think it’s impossible to dramatically scale back the use of a social network. It’s Twitter for me – for you it may be Facebook, Instagram and/or Snap. It has not been easy for me to break the spell of the social network Twitter. I was truly addicted to it, checking in virtually every hour. I’ve been using it for 11 years and I’ve forged many friendships and professional connections through it. And yet, I managed to reduce my use to 5 minutes a day, some days I don’t even log on.

You might be reading this and think: “sounds good in principle, but I could never do it.” I felt the same way. Then something clicked in me. I read a post on Reddit’s No Surf community that referred to all social media sites as “Time Thieves” – and this label shifted my whole perspective.

Time is the most precious resource we have, something no money or fame can buy more of. It’s the great equalizer. And yet, since the popularization of smartphones and the rise of social media platforms, many of us have spent precious hours every day engaged in virtual activities that provide a dopamine hit, but very little long term value. The teaser for my doc The Realists mentioned this:

A shift in perspective – seeing media and tech platforms as “Time Thieves” has given me a much needed motivation to break their spell.

2) Distraction (is obesity of the mind)

I’d venture to say that most social media use is mindless, as tech companies have engineered systems so addictive and time-consuming that they are hard to resist. Think about the “infinite scroll” of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. How YouTube has “autoplay” turned on by default, so that when a video ends, a related one picked by Google’s algorithm immediately begins.

Much in the same way that fast food companies have found the perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat to draw people to become addicted to their products (see: “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food“), tech engineers have found a myriad of ways to make their platforms and devices irresistible (see: “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist“)

We’ve become the Distracted Generation(s).

And what prompted me to change my habits were the words of author Matthew Crawford: “Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.”

3) Our free work, training algorithms

In Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier writes:

Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smartphone on their person all the time that’s suitable for algorithmic behavior modification.

He continues:

Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second. What kinds of links do you click on? What videos do you watch all the way through? How quickly are you moving from one thing to the next? Where are you when you do these things? Who are you connecting with in person and online? What facial expressions do you make? How does your skin tone change in different situations? What were you doing just before you decided to buy something or not? Whether to vote or not?

Every nanosecond we spend online, we are training algorithms to micro target us more efficiently. Ironically, we’re doing all this free work for the big tech giants. And yet, they’re the ones profiting from it.

I see any time away from a screen or platform as an act of rebellion. I’m reasserting my freedom and agency.

Ever since I managed to break the spell of Twitter and other “Time Thieves” I have been reading about 4-5 books a month. I’ve been doing more creative projects than usual. I developed a new habit of walking at least an hour a day. I feel so much better physically and mentally – a cloud of anxiety that had been hovering over me has completely dissipated. As I mentioned before, days feel longer, with so many opportunities to get things done, without distractions. I’m thinking of giving the Realists this new tagline: “Offline is the new luxury.”

Next week, I will share specific advice about what I do to minimize my screen time.

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