Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
— Epictetus, the Enchiridion, Carter translation from MIT
I wasn’t sure how to start this post. I wanted it to be grounded in Hellenism. The mindful living communities contain a lot of secular or Christian individuals citing Stoic philosophers, and the value of what I can say is (generally) in the intersection between Hellenism, minimalism, and philosophy.
I experience a consistent undercurrent of annoyance by media attempts to make minimalism a consumer trend, which erases all of us in it who are minimalists as a cognitive tool against the neuropsychology-based advertising dystopia that is modern life. Posts like Apartment Therapy’s six minimalist categories and the focus on men who ma(k/d)e six-figure salaries erase and sanitize minimalism into something palatable that can generate advertising revenue. Digital minimalism tends to focus on those who leave the Internet entirely for a year or who take month- or year-long fasts from social media.
This is not a post about a year-long fast. I torched Facebook and walked away at the end of 2016 and wrote a short essay on it. (If you want to leave Facebook, NYMag wrote a great primer on how.) And guess what? I won’t go back unless someone forces me to be there.
Later in 2017, I wrote a post on mental miasma in social media. Between those two posts, I’ve said most of what I need to say about why I decided Facebook wasn’t for me, along with my criticism of social media’s role in enhancing anxiety and miasma.
Most of my comments on social media and miasma come from personal experience. 2016 and 2017 were very psychologically hard, so having some degree of control was really important to me. Being a survivor of school bullying in the current political environment is an emotional shit show and an uphill battle. The seeds, though, started long before that — during the fight over social media in the wake of the Polytheist Leadership Conference, when the honeymoon of coming together was over and our communities failed to congeal or do the hard work. I now wonder just how much the fights were “enhanced” by the way algorithms behave when many people like/comment/&c on content.
2016 and 2017 were also hard for social media companies. Facebook, for example, got in trouble for the leaked document on teen sentiment analysis and work on how to target vulnerable people with exploitative ads. There’s also the Russia thing. Facebook even did a study on whether it could make people feel more negative emotions by amplifying negative things in their feeds. It can.
The algorithms that prioritize what someone sees — which claim to help cut through noise — were created by people, and there’s increasing criticism surrounding the transparency of how these algorithms operate and whether they’re as good as a person. As an information professional, I am simultaneously happy and dismayed by this environment. People are starting to care about their personal data (what we give any “free” social media service in exchange for our use of the platform) and how that impacts privacy and agency — but it’s because the people who were asking for this data and using it had no idea what Pandora’s box they had opened. Companies consult with human psychology experts to make their platforms even more addictive.
In the Enchiridion, Epictetus says that we control opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and our own actions. How true is this in an era when social media exploits the vulnerable cracks in our human psyches? What of ourselves do we actually control? How much of what we think of any issue is innate, and how much is shaped and controlled by advertisers or algorithm engineers? They shape our opinions. They shape our pursuits, desires, and aversions. Our opinions and perspectives lead to our actions in the world.
We control our attention, at least in the beginning.
The places we decide to interact impact which opinion-shaping algorithms we expose ourselves to.
Once we are in an online space, the notifications, the likes, and so on are designed to make us value the platform and keep us there. So, if we control our attention in the beginning, doesn’t it make sense to make value decisions on where we should spend our time before the dinging starts?
Beyond Stoicism, Solon’s tenets direct us to cultivate good associations with others and to not associate with people who are or do wicked things. These actions cultivate aretê. Everything we interact with online was ultimately created by a person.
In a digital environment, cultivating friendship and good associations means doing everything we personally can to ensure that our attention is getting hit by things that help us grow morally, ethically, and spiritually.
I absolutely do care about whether a polytheist’s political/social opinions cause harm to others for three vaguely connected reasons — (1) Ethical systems in Hellenism inform how I think about social justice and equity. (2) I worship the Eumenides, and the Kindly Goddesses don’t care how pious you are if the restless dead are pissed off. (3) People who are victims of trauma should not be blamed. Gods know I was blamed for “inviting” others to bully me growing up. Why should I do that to anyone else?
Beyond personal associations, I have notifications on my phone for Headspace, the Stoic quote of the day app, my daily weather forecast, a daily compliment, the 5-minute journal, and chats with friends. The only browser I have on my phone is Firefox Incognito, specifically because it keeps logging me out of Twitter when it erases my browser history. Most of the apps on my phone are for reading: Instapaper, Google Books, Kindle. (Google Books is where I read scifi lit mag epubs from the Patreon creators I support.) The only social media app I have on my phone is Goodreads. I avoid posting to Twitter when I’m feeling strong negative emotions. I don’t need likes or retweets to reinforce that with a dopamine hit.
The notifications do give me the opportunity to cut through the negativity narratives and reflect on better things. This, in conjunction with a purification practice midway through the Hellenic lunar month, are grounding facets of my life.
And there are bittersweet things about wrestling for control online. Not having Facebook means that I cannot participate in some streamed religious rituals, interact in any queer science fiction writer groups, or even do basic things like check store hours for some small businesses without seeing Facebook’s giant white bar. Facebook’s goal is to have a monopoly over the way we communicate with our families, loved ones, social, and professional group. It succeeds at that in many ways.
What I hope you’ve taken away from this post is that the idea of digital minimalism (or mindful tech or whatever you want to call it) is more complicated than experimenting with leaving platforms. It’s a process of balancing the miasma of negativity online and the ethics of how we allocate our attention and interpersonal exchanges against the things we need to use the Internet for, which are human connection, bill pay, and information-seeking.
Nobody is perfect at it.