Within the steadily evolving idea of digital minimalism, the question of whether “less is more” has drawn heated debate. Some argue that access to technology can assist in areas of education, employment, and collective action. In this way, local communities can be given opportunities and a voice through which to mobilize their social and political discourses on multiple scales. However, others argue that the increasing presence of digital technologies and ease of access to particular forms of knowledge have created certain forms of educational dependencies, digital barriers to employment, and new means through which isolated communities are lost within the growing amounts of global data flows. Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, suggests that technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad and that it should be used to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you. According to this view, we have a choice to disconnect and to engage with technology as we see fit, regardless of what society expects of our engagement, access, or connectivity. Therefore, the issue is whether to continue our daily dependency and immersion in our technologies or to find a way to minimize our access and dependency through modification of our daily routines and activities.
I argue that this concept of “minimalism” is one of extreme privilege that can be afforded to only a select few in the world. I do admit that the advantages that come with mitigating one’s dependencies on technology do improve certain aspects of daily life, but I still maintain that even in the United States, digital minimalism is largely untenable for many people. In my time attempting digital minimalism, I ran into issues of access and connectivity that affected my ability to learn, work, and to secure my online activities. Some may object to this in saying there are ways to cope with these challenges of access by merely reducing the time spent on our technologies which will then result in us eventually being more efficient with what little access we do allow ourselves. However, as I found out, reduction of use combined with limited access in the United States not only proves difficult, but reflects larger issues of digital divide in many parts of the world. This is important as many younger generations take for granted the free Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile data access that so many others don’t have. What we should be doing instead of minimizing our use is to make sure that our time is spent using that access to help others without such advantages, valuing other’s lives as much as we do our own.
In early 2019, I decided to perform a little experiment. The intent of this experiment was to see how much impact having no Internet in my home would have on my daily activities. At first, I was very excited to do this as I was often distracted with building new tools and exploring new data sets, ultimately keeping me from working on my writing as much as I felt I should be. I started by removing the cable internet from my house, renting co-work space, and depending solely on a limited amount of tether available through my smartphone. However, throughout the month, I found that I went to the co-work very little due to my weekly work schedule. This left me with high-speed Internet (speeds of 30Mbps or more) only when I was at work and with 3G speeds (or slower) at any other time.
At first, this did help with my productivity. I was reading and writing more than I had in previous months as I had to plan my online activity in advance for my time offline. I also found myself getting up more, working out, and getting outside of my office and home. However, outside of this initial boost there were some significant drawbacks. Accessing some websites was brutally slow, downloading data and system updates took forever, and using security practices I have previously used was no longer possible. For this, I went in search of solutions to these matters.
Upon searching for solutions to slow- or no-access issues to websites and data, I found myself reading comments from people in more rural parts of the US and from those in countries outside of North America and Europe. After reading several threads and blog posts, there were many people who had made the move to minimize their digital dependencies who very quickly went back to their old ways. Whether this was due to social pressure of social network involvement, access to their online classes, or need to stay connected to work e-mail, they often commented that they would spend hours in cafes and offices taking care of things they would ordinarily take care of at home or through their smartphones.
Outside of the Western context, the stories were far worse. People who had some connection to the Internet often found themselves as competitive disadvantages with others in job searches. This would often be accompanied with painful stories of how they obtained their education of software development or data analysis over the course of years through extremely slow Internet connections (one story remarking that it took 20 minutes for them to log into their MOOC website from their location). It seemed that in an era of burgeoning 5G speeds, much of the world was still struggling to connect on a daily basis.
In the process of resolving my minimal shift with the necessity to accomplish daily tasks, I came across three main issues that plagued me and several others.
The Bulk of Modern Web Design
Several websites do not offer any alternatives to their feature-heavy websites. In my month of slow speeds, only Google had faster HTML alternatives to their pages where social media websites like Facebook and Twitter were almost impossible to use. In the pursuit of optimal UX/UI, many websites loaded tens of external, 3rd party libraries into their websites, making them extremely slow to response to interactions or queries. Searching, accessing, and downloading a single article often took several minutes to accomplish, ultimately destroying any productivity gains I hopes to achieve through my digital minimalism.
For those looking for remote education and employment opportunities, this problem was a compounding disadvantage to them. I read several posts stating that following their bootstrap courses and online certificate courses, people were not able to respond quickly enough to openings on Mechanical Turk and Hired.com, leaving them search for weeks before landing a fairly low paying job. Those with high-speed Internet often acquire and resell these online freelance jobs knowing they can take advantage of these disparities in speed and access. For other locations with increased government surveillance and control of Internet access, many were left with no options but to go back to previous lines of employment such as construction of handy work.
As someone who has experience with developing web applications, I often don’t think about the above problems within the immediate context of producing a working application. However, as I show above, optimization matters. When I say optimization in this context, I’m referring initially to two specific areas of optimization: optimization for region and optimization of design.
Optimization for regions refers to building applications that take into account bench-marked Internet speed per area of access for a given user-base. Once this is assessed, a website admin should have a plan in place to offer an experience for people in those locations conducive to that location’s speeds of access. For example, having a JS prompt in known regions of slow Internet speeds asking if they would like the standard website or a much faster website consisting of static pages, one that has been drastically reduced in its more memory intensive content, or one that offers use of a smaller form factor through the use of responsive design. This may seem trivial, but for many this type of design would mean greater access for many people, even in Western nations.
The second type of optimization is tightly related to the first. Design criteria can often be balanced to afford a modern, flashy experience without excluding millions of people from being access that experience via their slow Internet connections. Use of minimalist design aesthetics not only helps those with slower connections, it is currently a top design style that many websites are implementing for their users. In addition to the stripped-down and responsive design options mentioned above, there are many Web 1.0 and pre-HTML5 techniques that exist for loading a large amount of content on slow-speed connections (e.g., load prioritization practices for page content still supported in modern browsers).
These considerations in design and regional hosting would go a long way if digital minimalism is to realize its goal of us leading more productive and efficient lives beyond the more privileged context of Western high-speed Internet access.
VPNs? What VPNs?
This was perhaps the most difficult for me to adapt to and to overcome. Even in a post-net neutrality world where surveillance of peoples’ Internet activity is at an all time high, this point is what ultimately brought me back to having broadband Internet access in my home.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are meant to assist people in protecting their sensitive traffic online. In most cases, this is meant to help people protect their login and financial information when using public Internet access points. In the more important instances, VPNs protect life-saving communications for activists and journalists in areas of the world hostile to their activities. I found that most VPN services do NOT work well on slow internet connections (in some cases, they do not work at all). The only way I found to get a properly functioning VPN for daily use was to build and OpenVPN server optimized for slow internet connections (geographically located close to me to ensure minimal packet loss). However, this is untenable for most people in areas of slow internet access, whether through technical know-how or through inability to access infrastructure required to build and used such a service for their daily use. I also entertained the idea of using TOR, but this system is not recommended for “all-purpose use” and only obfuscates certain types of traffic. This leaves many people attempting to gain employment at additional risk to their livelihoods once they do gain access to a given system.
VPNs often decrease Internet speeds given the nature of how one connects to them for access, but to complicate access in the first place for people in areas where Internet connections are persistently slow and spotty draws out the privileged notion of digital minimalism for the few who are able to do so.
Digital Divide Redux
As suggested above, I argue that digital minimalism or minimalist movements writ-large can be seen as movements only tenable by those of privileged status in society and does little to address the ills experienced by those persistently disadvantaged by how the Internet (and other aspects of Information and Communications Technologies) was conceived and constructed over time. I also realize as I write this that I’m writing this from a position of extreme privilege and that with my privilege comes a great level of responsibility. My experience has made me more aware of how grateful I should be for the access I have to knowledge and opportunities that many others do not which brings me to my second point on valuing others.
Digital minimalism is great for those that are overwhelmed by their access and in parts of the world where society tells you to stay connected 24/7, a plan to disconnect is more than understandable. However, instead of minimizing connection, we should instead focus on the maximizing the quality of our connections and how we can better use that connection of mobilize action for the benefit of others. Instead of surfing Instagram and Twitter for hours on end, take the time to visit the EFF website or Fight for the Future to see how others are working to keep your digital freedoms open and alive. Instead of vegging out on YouTube, search for events that make that activity more social such as a local discussion group for online content. In this way, we disconnect more organically and reconnect to technology in a way that support mutual aid to others who we should value more.
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