I finished two books yesterday that couldn’t possibly have been more different: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which (spoiler alert) I hated, and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism.
I came to Digital Minimalism because after the terrorism in New Zealand I was increasingly frustrated that I spend so much time providing free content and lucrative page views for corporations who passively/actively encourage the murder of my friends. About which Newport says “I want to bypass a discussion of the potential pathologies of the social media universe and keep our focus on the zero-sum relationship between online and offline interaction.” Or, let’s skip talking about the rise of the alt-right in online spaces, and instead keep our focus where it belongs–social media is destroying conversation.
The shift to individual choice is, of course, one of the fundamental problems in discussions about minimalism. Every product is allowed to be on the market. Every space is allowed to exist. It’s only consumption that is the problem. Facebook is addictive, but we aren’t going to suggest that Facebook itself should change. Instead, it is a moral failing for you to be addicted to this addictive substance. You just need to make more rules, to keep a better eye on your values, and to accept some “personal inconvenience.” But, in fact, social media both is and is not an individual problem. Obviously, we can do things to help ourselves. There are hundreds of articles of tips and tricks online, from turning off all your notifications to putting your phone in greyscale mode. Read them; maybe one will work for you. But only as a collective mass can we produce desperately necessary institutional change for things like hate speech.
A second problem is that minimalism as a philosophy expects us to weigh every choice against our values. Doesn’t that sound great? Except, we don’t. I don’t mean that it’s your personal failing. I mean human brains don’t do that. Nor do we want them to. You don’t slam on your brakes rather than hit a person with your car because you take a moment to weigh your options. We are ruled by habits, by unconscious choices, and by implicit biases. Our use of technology, much more than traditional minimalist topics like shopping, is almost entirely unconscious. You don’t decide to check your phone; you just check your phone. Breaking habits is hard, especially when that habit surrounds an addictive substance. Newport’s shame-based ideology that begins with prohibition and concludes that if we only stopped using technology we would recognize how awful it is doesn’t seem like much of an answer.
I would like to shift here from prohibition to pleasure.
While I read Cal Newport’s book in two days, I spent two weeks moving slowly through adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism. Brown and I are very different people, and I found most of the book to be, somewhat disappointingly, about drugs I don’t use and kinds of sex that I don’t have. Two points, though, have really impacted me.
First, in a conversation about sex work, Chanelle Gallant notes that “getting good wages is the harm reduction of capitalism.” I had never thought to consider harm reduction outside of its original context in drug use. (Harm reduction drives programs like needle exchanges.) But what happens if we think of harm reduction expansively? What is the harm reduction for late-stage capitalism? For isolation? For excessive and misogynist emotional labor? For being re-traumatized by the news every day/week/month? How do we make sure everyone survives the right now, with bodies and hearts and minds intact, so that we can still exist when something better happens?
How, most relevantly to this conversation, do we exist on social media in a way that doesn’t leave either us or our friends feeling more isolated?
More generally, though, after a few days with brown’s book I found myself asking “am I enjoying this?” It turned out to be a fascinating question. Americans have a bad relationship to pleasure. We are suspicious of happiness. I grew up, like many Americans do, in a religious context that deliberately embraced the fact that life is suffering, and that by suffering now we will be eternally joyful. Earthly joy is not Godly. In the social justice circles I inhabit as an adult, it’s also pretty hard to be happy, both because we’re aware of a lot of terrible things and because we are so conscious of the unfair conditions that created our happiness. On top of that, women are taught that our happiness is less valuable than the comfort of others. Pleasure is seen as both a useless frivolity and selfish, and enjoyment becomes a sign of moral failure.
In that context, “Am I enjoying this?” is a quietly revolutionary question. Obviously the answer isn’t always going to be yes. We do a lot of things for reasons other than enjoyment. (I don’t enjoy flossing my teeth, but it’s a lot better than dental work.) At the same time, we can also make choices that improve our pleasure-outcomes. I’m much more likely to wash the dishes if the window is open where I can see the birds. I love two cups of coffee, but the third makes me feel ill. “Am I enjoying this?” leads to “Could I be enjoying this?” and/or “If not, is there a reason I’m doing it?”
On the flip side, denying and troubling our right to happiness actually creates the conditions that let addictive technology thrive. We lose our ability to say, “this isn’t fun anymore” after the third hour of Netflix because we don’t honor our ability to say “this is fun” during the first episode. If the first episode is already something that you shouldn’t be doing, or shouldn’t be enjoying, then you have already impeded your ability to intervene in the autoplay cycle. If every check of Facebook is giving in to the temptations of evil, then why not stay for an hour once you click? But these things aren’t failures. It’s okay to do things that bring you happiness, no matter how fleeting, and it’s okay to stop them when that happiness ends.
I’m fully aware that this is also in some sense a shift of collective responsibility to the individual. I feel, though, that a shift based on consent, on saying yes, is liberatory rather than shaming, and only in liberation can we move forward. (It’s also easier to build a habit than eliminate one.) Within that context we can better extract the actual benefits from a largely inescapable system that we want to change but also don’t have very much power to change. That is, we can revel in the ways that social media and technology bring us pleasure and thus have a more nuanced and full understanding of the ways that they don’t. The language of authentic pleasure gives us a methodology for interacting with dopamine-based manipulation. As brown says, speaking of social justice but also applicable here, “our misery only serves those who wish to control us, to have our existence be in service to their own.”
Pleasure and connection and authenticity are the harm reduction for technology. Let’s inhabit them.