The Aggregate: Going Beyond Digital Detox // What Adulting and Kidspeak Have In Common
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Minimalism
The New Yorker – Jia Tolentino, “What It Takes To Put Your Phone Away”
Available in the April 29, 2019 edition of The New Yorker, this piece by Jia Tolentino is required reading. Tolentino uses her piece to examine two modern, philosophical approaches to “digital minimalism” – a set of beliefs and practices surrounding screen time and the use of social media. Social attitudes toward platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are evolving as quickly as the platforms themselves, and in many cases, users are becoming increasingly wary of the effects social media has on their well-being. The basic roadmap of digital minimalism outlined in this article proves that stepping away from technology is no longer as simple as putting down our phones; a generation inundated by technology every single day requires a solution that is as fundamental to daily life as our smartphones have become.
“Nearly three-quarters of Americans have taken steps to distance themselves from Facebook. Entire families try to observe a “digital Sabbath.” Parents seek screen-time alternatives to the Jungian horrorscape that is children’s YouTube. And yet a mood of fidgety powerlessness continues to accumulate, like an acid snowfall on our collective mind.”
It is probably fair to say that most people have experimented with ways to reduce screen time or minimize distractions while at work, school, etc. However, Tolentino argues that getting to a place that is truly distraction free extends beyond our physical habits – many of our interactions with technology are dictated by a philosophical belief that our phones (or tablets, or laptops, etc.) are somehow enriching our lives. According to Tolentino’s piece, the truest form of digital detox comes from adopting an entirely new set of philosophical beliefs, which is a process that may look something like this:
“[Cal] Newport [a computer science professor at Columbia] defines a digital minimalist as someone who drops “low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and halfhearted binge watching” in favor of high-value leisure activities such as board games, CrossFit, book clubs, and learning to “fix or build something every week.” The goal is a permanent change of outlook and behavior, like converting to veganism or Christianity, in service of a life that is more holistically productive—one in which we turn to digital technology only when it provides the most efficient method of serving a carefully considered personal aim.”
Whether or not you have time for CrossFit or a book club, you should not detract from the importance of this premise. Replacing the serotonin produced by getting likes on your latest Instagram post with serotonin produced by taking a hike or reading a book, ultimately has the potential to improve your well-being in a number of ways. Should social media users choose not to heed this advice, Tolentino uses her poignancy to get at some of the deepest concerns that arise when social media use dominates our daily routine.
“Social-media companies monetize everyday selfhood: our preferences and personal data are tracked and sold to advertisers; our relationships are framed as potentially profitable conduits; we continually capture one another’s lucrative attention by performing some version of who we think we are. Over time, we have absorbed these terms and conditions: we might retain very little of the value we create, but we have allowed social media to make us feel valuable. These platforms encourage compulsive use by offering forms of social approval—likes on Facebook and Instagram, retweets on Twitter—that are intermittent and unpredictable, as though you’re playing a slot machine that tells you whether or not people love you.”
Social media has the power to mold how we view ourselves, both as participants in the digital landscape and as individuals outside of it. In order to completely change how we approach something that has become so integral to everyday life, it makes sense that a drastic shift in our attitude toward social media is truly the only way to reduce the distractions – direct and indirect – that come with it. This article definitely unpacks some of the more sinister conclusions drawn by those studying social media, but Tolentino and her interviewees throughout the piece argue that social media may eventually become more stigmatized – and its use increasingly frowned upon – as our understanding of the exploitative nature of these platforms increases. Small sentiments, like the ones below, are useful for those who wish to consider how to frame their relationship to the various platforms they use, and hopefully begin to create a more productive relationship with technology.
“To make money from something—a forest, a sense of self—is often to destroy it.”
“[T]o speak out against something within the confines of the attention economy is, inevitably, to bring it more attention. It is hard to grasp how individual acts of refusal would build collective momentum outside the platforms that they aim to refuse.”
While these are generally disheartening statements, they are also powerful enough to generate the kind of change this article teaches about. Ironically, there are plenty of resources available to help people cut back on screen time, and most of them are available, well, as downloadable apps or extensions. Although, perhaps the most valuable and effective measure anyone can take in reducing the negative effects of social media use is something along these lines: make a plan for technology use that most benefits your productivity and overall well-being, try to avoid mindless scrolling in excess, and replace even just a few hours that would be screen time with alternative activities. This will inevitably look different for everyone, but no matter if the changes are big or small, establishing and maintaining habits for a healthy relationship with technology may be the ultimate #selfcare.
Slang as a Cultural Storyteller
The Atlantic – John Mcwhorter, “Why Grown-Ups Keep Talking Like Little Kids”
This article strikes a much lighter tone, and comes to us from the May print issue of The Atlantic. John Mcwhorter is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, and host of the podcast Lexicon Valley where he explores the incredible, complicated, sometimes dizzying beast that is language. Scrolling through Twitter or even yesterday’s text messages quickly reveals the common trend Mcwhorter discusses in this piece: communications, that when taken out of context, sounds like they could be exchanged by toddlers. It is both amusing and useful to explore the way language mutates as a result of social and cultural pressures, and in this piece, Mcwhorter does just that.
“More and more, adults are sprinkling their speech with the language of children. […] The adoption of some of these linguistic tics by adults […] has given rise to a register we might call kidspeak. It’s a new way of sounding “real,” with a prominence that would challenge a time traveler from as recently as the year 2000. Examples of kidspeak are everywhere, once you start to look. Take our newfangled use of the word because, as seen in sentences such as I believe in climate change because science and You’re reading this article because procrastination.”
If you were unsure exactly what “tics” Mcwhorter was referring to, the above example makes it abundantly clear (for me, at least) that we all participate in this phenomenon of kidspeak without really thinking about it as a “phenomenon.” We normalize these linguistic oddities without much thought or effort, and it then becomes the work of linguists to decipher why certain trends catch on. Conveniently for readers, Mcwhorter delves into that process in this article as well.
“The horrors of the real world are enough to make a person seek the safety of childhood by any means, including linguistic ones. […] A pair of 2016 studies led by April Smith, a psychology professor at Miami University, in Ohio, showed that over the past few decades, young people have become newly fearful of reaching adulthood […] Given the magnitude of recent social and political unrest, not seeing the upheaval reflected in language would have been surprising. And social media have only quickened the pace of change.”
“A generation understandably spooked by “adulting” may well embrace the linguistic comfort food of childlike language. And once established, the habit can easily make the jump to those of us more advanced in years.”
This analysis might lead readers to believe that our younger generations are regressing, and spreading their Freudian tics to the rest of the population in the process. If you ask any millennial or Gen Z how they feel about the future, this theory about regression may seem true. However, Mcwhorter argues that these nuances in language are actually indicative of growth and increased complexity of communication, and of society as a whole.
“Does the new trend of kidspeak represent a dumbing-down of the English language—and of American society as a whole? Just the opposite: With the rise of kidspeak, we are actually witnessing English’s enrichment. […] Amid today’s dreadful news cycles, the emergence of kidspeak is something to celebrate. This new slang is a totally natural and endlessly witty collective advancement of the American idiom, wielded selectively and with a fundamental irony by people fully in command of the standard language forms.”
So, next time you consider replying “yeehaw” to a long, wordy text message from your mother, think of yourself not as an immature 26-year-old who still eats toaster waffles for breakfast, but as as a steward of language and a cultural torchbearer – and carry your head high with pride. Just kidding. But in all seriousness, as silly and benign as slang and ‘kidspeak’ may seem, the nuance of language is just one interesting reminder that we are all actively shaping culture through our words and actions every day. If you ask me… that is pretty heckin’ awesome.
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.