Anger and Outrage: Features, Not Bugs

From Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World:

The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Encountering this distressing collection of concerns—from the exhausting and addictive overuse of these tools, to their ability to reduce autonomy, decrease happiness, stoke darker instincts, and distract from more valuable activities—opened my eyes to the fraught relationship so many now maintain with the technologies that dominate our culture. It provided me, in other words, a much better understanding of what Andrew Sullivan meant when he lamented: “I used to be a human being.”

Doomscrolling is so insidiously toxic.

I am not a heavy social media user. I mainly use Twitter to make sure I interact with readers who use that medium and to share my newest articles. Since 2009, my main use of Twitter has been to publish other people’s tiny stories in Nanoism, an admittedly bizarre hobby and a largely one-way broadcast (@nanoism). I actively dislike Facebook.

And yet.

Sometimes I find myself scrolling and scrolling, clicking on a shared link to another depressing rantorial and then reading the awful comments from strangers on the internet who didn’t read the actual article acting out their respective caricatures. It all makes me wonder if humans are actually the creatures of morality and reason as argued by some philosophers. For most internet platforms, anger and outrage are features. Yelling at strangers on the internet is gold for companies that serve you targeted ads and profit from your attention. Everything is tailored for engagement.

One app I desperately needed when I was a student is Freedom, a service that allows you to block certain activities either on-demand or on a schedule. It would have saved me from a lot of my old internet demons. I should probably even turn it on more now, but I’m usually in a better place these days. Having young kids to soak up my time and attention has helped me hone my focus.

But Newport takes it a step further, and I think he’s right. It’s not enough to try to limit the damage of new technology or platforms on your life:

I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

Many finance gurus talk about the need for all of us to have “Investor Policy Statements” or a “Written Financial Plan.” The reason being that if you don’t articulate a specific position, you may react inappropriately to the vagaries of life in a way that is counter to your goals. The plan keeps you honest and helps you deal with anxiety.

It makes sense to plot out “use criteria” so that you know if you should be incorporating the newest social media service that comes along and not just reactively picking something up because it’s popular.

Likewise, it makes even more sense to look critically at your use and see where the utility lies. You may not want to delete your Facebook profile or remove Instagram from your phone. Fine, right? But what–specifically–about using those services makes you happy, and what makes you angry, hurt, or jealous? And, knowing that, how can you structure some rules for engagement that can help you get what you want from the platform instead of letting it became just another automatic behavior?


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