I am currently reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Sharing an excerpt from the book on the true cost of using social media below.
The first and longest chapter of Walden is titled “Economy.” It contains many of Thoreau’s signature poetic flourishes about nature and the human condition. It also, however, contains a surprising number of bland expense tables, recording costs down to a fraction of a cent.
Thoreau’s purpose in these tables is to capture precisely (not poetically or philosophically) how much it cost to support his life at Walden Pond—a lifestyle that, as he argues at length in this first chapter, satisfies all the basic human needs: food, shelter, warmth, and so on. Thoreau then contrasts these costs with the hourly wages he could earn with his labor to arrive at the final value he cared most about: How much of his time must be sacrificed to support his minimalist lifestyle? After plugging in the numbers gathered during his experiment, he determined that hiring out his labor only one day per week would be sufficient. This magician’s trick of shifting the units of measure from money to time is the core novelty of what the philosopher Frédéric Gros calls Thoreau’s “new economics,” a theory that builds on the following axiom, which Thoreau establishes early in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
This new economics offers a radical rethinking of the consumerist culture that began to emerge in Thoreau’s time. Standard economic theory focuses on monetary outcomes. If working one acre of land as a farmer earns you $1 a year in profit, and working sixty acres earns you $60, then you should, if it’s at all possible, work the sixty acres—it produces strictly more money. Thoreau’s new economics considers such math woefully incomplete, as it leaves out the cost in life required to achieve that extra $59 in monetary profit. “As he notes in Walden, working a large farm, as many of his Concord neighbors did, required large, stressful mortgages, the need to maintain numerous pieces of equipment, and endless, demanding labor. He describes these farmer neighbors as “crushed and smothered under [their] load” and famously lumps them into the “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.
Thoreau then asks what benefits these worn-down farmers receive from the extra profit they eke out. As he proved in his Walden experiment, this extra work is not enabling the farmers to escape savage conditions: Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town more efficiently.
When analyzed through Thoreau’s new economics, this exchange can come across as ill conceived. Who could justify trading a lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor for better blinds? Is a nicer-looking window treatment really worth so much of your life? “Similarly, why would you add hours of extra labor in the fields to obtain a wagon? It’s true that it takes more time to walk to town than to ride in a wagon, Thoreau notes, but these walks still likely require less time than the extra work hours needed to afford the wagon. It’s exactly these types of calculations that lead Thoreau to observe sardonically: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, house, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”
Thoreau’s new economics was developed in an industrial age, but his basic insights apply just as well to our current digital context. The first principle of digital minimalism presented earlier in this chapter states that clutter is costly. Thoreau’s new economics helps explain why.
When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces. Maintaining an active presence on Twitter, for example, might occasionally open up an interesting new connection or expose you to an idea you hadn’t heard before. Standard economic thinking says that such profits are good, and the more you receive the better. It therefore makes sense to clutter your digital life with as many of these small sources of value as you can find, much as it made sense for the Concord farmer to cultivate as many acres of land as he could afford to mortgage. Thoreau’s new economics, however, demands that you balance this profit against the costs measured in terms of “your life.” How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Assume, for example, that your Twitter habit effectively consumes ten hours per week. Thoreau would note that this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefits it returns. If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? “This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits.
These costs, of course, also tend to compound. When you combine an active Twitter presence with a dozen other attention-demanding online behaviors, the cost in life becomes extreme. Like Thoreau’s farmers, you end up “crushed and smothered” under the demands on your time and attention, and in the end, all you receive in return for sacrificing so much of your life is a few nicer trinkets—the digital equivalent of the farmer’s venetian blinds or fancier pot—many of which, as shown in the Twitter example above, could probably be approximated at a much lower cost, or eliminated without any major negative impact. This is why clutter is dangerous. It’s easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life. This is also what makes Thoreau’s new economics so relevant to our current moment. “Thoreau’s obsession with calculation helps us move past the vague subjective sense that there are trade-offs inherent in digital clutter, and forces us instead to confront it more precisely. He asks us to treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance—arguably the most valuable substance we possess—and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time. When we confront our habits through this perspective, we will reach the same conclusion now that Thoreau did in his era: more often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.