The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Prof. Cal Newport

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, "it can wait," you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of mentally, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more thumbs-ups, little hearts, and gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods.”

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport's conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Related Content:

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

New Animation Explains Sherry Turkle’s Theories on Why Social Media Makes Us Lonely

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marshall McLuhan Explains Why We’re Blind to How Technology Changes Us, Raising the Question: What Have the Internet & Social Media Done to Us?

Image of Marshall McLuhan at Canada, by Wikimedia Commons

So many of us use Facebook every day, but how many of us know that its enormous presence in our lives owes, in part, to modern philosophy? "In the course of his studies at Stanford," writes John Lanchester in a recent London Review of Books piece of Facebook, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, an early investor in the company, "became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World," especially a concept he called "mimetic desire."

"Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter," writes Lanchester. "Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them." Or as Thiel explained it, "Imitation is at the root of all behavior." Lanchester reports that "the reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy," yet few of us, its users, have clearly perceived that essential aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms.




Marshall McLuhan, despite having died decades before their development, would have caught on right away — and he understood why even we savvy denizens of the 21st century haven't. "For the past 3500 years of the Western world, the effects of media — whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television — have been systematically overlooked by social observers," said the author of Understanding Media and The Medium is the Message. "Even in today’s revolutionary electronic age, scholars evidence few signs of modifying this traditional stance of ostrichlike disregard."

Those words come from an in-depth 1969 interview with Playboy magazine that broke the celebrity literature professor McLuhan's ideas to an even wider audience than they'd had before. In it he diagnosed a "peculiar form of self-hypnosis" he called "Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible."

As McLuhan saw it, "most people, from truck drivers to the literary Brahmins, are still blissfully ignorant of what the media do to them; unaware that because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the massage — that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb."

Just last month, no less omnipresent an internet titan than Google celebrated McLuhan's 106th birthday, and a social observer called PR Professor saw in it a certain irony: though "it seems like technology that extends man’s ability to experience and interpret the world is positive and desirable," McLuhan pointed out "that the inherent tendency to focus on the messages within the media make us blind to the limits and structures imposed by the mediums themselves." This blindness has consequences indeed, since, according to McLuhan, each time a society develops a new media technology, "all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form" as that technology "saturates every institution of that society."

This went for speech, writing, print, and the telegraph as well as it goes for "social media platforms like Twitter, which reduce expressive possibilities to 140 characters of text or expressing one’s self through the ‘re-tweeting’ of posts by others." McLuhan believed that at one time only the interpretive work of the artist, "who has had the power — and courage — of the seer to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world," could allow the rest of us to recognize the thoroughgoing effects of technology on society, but that "the new environment of electric information" had made possible "a new degree of perception and critical awareness by nonartists." At least more of us, if we step back, can now understand our affliction by mimetic desire, Narcissus narcosis, or any number of other troubling conditions. What to do about them remains an open question.

Related Content:

Marshall McLuhan Predicts That Electronic Media Will Displace the Book & Create Sweeping Changes in Our Everyday Lives (1960)

Marshall McLuhan in Two Minutes: A Brief Animated Introduction to the 1960s Media Theorist Who Predicted Our Present

Has Technology Changed Us?: BBC Animations Answer the Question with the Help of Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan Said “The Medium Is The Message”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971)

New Animation Explains Sherry Turkle’s Theories on Why Social Media Makes Us Lonely

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Marshall McLuhan Predicts That Electronic Media Will Displace the Book & Create Sweeping Changes in Our Everyday Lives (1960)

"The electronic media haven't wiped out the book: it's read, used, and wanted, perhaps more than ever. But the role of the book has changed. It's no longer alone. It no longer has sole charge of our outlook, nor of our sensibilities." As familiar as those words may sound, they don't come from one of the think pieces on the changing media landscape now published each and every day. They come from the mouth of midcentury CBC television host John O'Leary, introducing an interview with Marshall McLuhan more than half a century ago.

McLuhan, one of the most idiosyncratic and wide-ranging thinkers of the twentieth century, would go on to become world famous (to the point of making a cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall) as a prophetic media theorist. He saw clearer than many how the introduction of mass media like radio and television had changed us, and spoke with more confidence than most about how the media to come would change us. He understood what he understood about these processes in no small part because he'd learned their history, going all the way back to the development of writing itself.




Writing, in McLuhan's telling, changed the way we thought, which changed the way we organized our societies, which changed the way we perceived things, which changed the way we interact. All of that holds truer for the printing press, and even truer still for television. He told the story in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which he was working on at the time of this interview in May of 1960, and which would introduce the term "global village" to its readers, and which would crystallize much of what he talked about in this broadcast. Electronic media, in his view, "have made our world into a single unit."

With this "continually sounding tribal drum" in place, "everybody gets the message all the time: a princess gets married in England, and 'boom, boom, boom' go the drums. We all hear about it. An earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk, away go the drums again." The consequence? "We're re-tribalizing. Involuntarily, we're getting rid of individualism." Where "just as books and their private point of view are being replaced by the new media, so the concepts which underlie our actions, our social lives, are changing." No longer concerned with "finding our own individual way," we instead obsess over "what the group knows, feeling as it does, acting 'with it,' not apart from it."

Though McLuhan died in 1980, long before the appearance of the modern internet, many of his readers have seen recent technological developments validate his notion of the global village — and his view of its perils as well as its benefits — more and more with time. At this point in history, mankind can seem less united than ever than ever, possibly because technology now allows us to join any number of global "tribes." But don't we feel more pressure than ever to know just what those tribes know and feel just what they feel?

No wonder so many of those pieces that cross our news feeds today still reference McLuhan and his predictions. Just this past weekend, Quartz's Lila MacLellan did so in arguing that our media, "while global in reach, has come to be essentially controlled by businesses that use data and cognitive science to keep us spellbound and loyal based on our own tastes, fueling the relentless rise of hyper-personalization" as "deep-learning powered services promise to become even better custom-content tailors, limiting what individuals and groups are exposed to even as the universe of products and sources of information expands." Long live the individual, the individual is dead: step back, and it all looks like one of those contradictions McLuhan could have delivered as a resonant sound bite indeed.

Related Content:

Marshall McLuhan in Two Minutes: A Brief Animated Introduction to the 1960s Media Theorist Who Predicted Our Present

Has Technology Changed Us?: BBC Animations Answer the Question with the Help of Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan Said “The Medium Is The Message”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

The Visionary Thought of Marshall McLuhan, Introduced and Demystified by Tom Wolfe

Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Complete Digitization of Eros Magazine: The Controversial 1960s Magazine on the Sexual Revolution

Last year we told you about the digitization of Avant Garde magazine, a short-lived but influential 1960s magazine, which featured lithographs by John Lennon and artistic photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Today, we're pleased to announce the digitization of Avant Garde's sister magazine, Eros. Also a collaboration between Ralph Ginzburg (editor) and Herb Lubalin (art director), Eros positioned itself as a quarterly magazine on love and sex in America. Authorities, however, didn't take kindly to a magazine covering the sexual revolution. Not in 1962. And when Eros published its fourth issue, Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, indicted Ginzburg for distributing obscene literature through the mail and violating federal anti-obscenity laws. Ginzburg was convicted (a decision later affirmed by the Supreme Court) and sentenced to five years in prison. Ultimately, he served eight months.

Thanks to Mindy Seu, a newly-created website lets you read digital copies of Eros. All four issuesSpring 1962, Summer 1962Autumn 1962, and Winter 1962. When you visit the site, click the word "Index" in the top right corner, and then you can easily navigate through individual pages.

As you do, keep one thing in mind: Eros was no flimsy magazine. According to The New York Times, it was a "stunningly designed hardcover 'magbook'," covering "a wide swath of sexuality in history, politics, art and literature" and featuring articles by the likes of Nat Hentoff.

Also, if you click on "Resources" once you're on the new site, you can read articles about Eros magazine and the controversial trial.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

A Complete Digitization of the 1960s Magazine Avant Garde: From John Lennon’s Erotic Lithographs to Marilyn Monroe’s Last Photos

Download 336 Issues of the Avant-Garde Magazine The Storm (1910-1932), Featuring the Work of Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy & More

Extensive Archive of Avant-Garde & Modernist Magazines (1890-1939) Now Available Online

2,200 Radical Political Posters Digitized: A New Archive

Watch a Reading of Steve Bannon’s Screenplay Which Attempted to Turn Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Into a Rap Musical

Somewhere between working at Goldman Sachs, and calling the shots for Breitbart and Donald Trump, the Voldemortian Steve Bannon went to Hollywood and made 18 films, many of them political. Described "as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement" (by Andrew Breitbart himself), Bannon helped produce the Ronald Reagan documentary In the Face of Evil and Fire from the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman. But he's perhaps best known for writing a treatment for the never-made documentary, Destroying the Great Satan: The Rise of Islamic Fascism in America. The eight page draft, writes The Washington Post, proposed "a three-part movie that would trace 'the culture of intolerance' behind sharia law, examine the 'Fifth Column' made up of 'Islamic front groups' and identify the American enablers paving 'the road to this unique hell on earth.'" Looking back, it's no wonder that Bannon tried to engineer a ban of Muslims immigrants upon entering the White House.

For anyone interested in revisiting another unrealized Bannon production, you can now watch (above) a table read of his screenplay for The Thing I Am. Co-written with Julia Jones during the late 1990s, it's a "rap musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus set in South Central Los Angeles during the 1992 riots after the LAPD beating of Rodney King." Put together by an organization called Now This, the read features Rob Corddry, Lucas Neff, Parvesh Cheena, Daniele Gaither, Gary Anthony Williams, Charlie Carver, Cedric Yarborough, and hip hop artist A.J. Crew. And, as the website Refinery29 warns, it's "full of cussing, the n-word, and mentions of crotch grabs."

Related Content:

Sinclair Lewis’ Chilling Play, It Can’t Happen Here: A Read-Through by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A Free Course from Yale on the U.S. Civil War: Because Trump Just Gave Us Another Teachable Moment

The News Is Broken, and Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Plans to Fix It With His New Site, Wikitribune

"The news is broken and we can fix it." That's the idea driving the creation of Wikitribune, a news platform being built by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Borrowing tools and concepts from the influential online encyclopedia, Wikitribune will be free and supported by readers, not ads. It will feature professional journalists and community members, working side by side, to produce fact-checked journalism that's readily supported by evidence and sources. And anyone can flag mistakes or submit revisions for review.

Watch Wales outline the vision for Wikitribune in the Kirby Ferguson-made video above. Then, consider making a financial contribution to the new news platform here. They're now raising money to get operations started and hire 10 journalists.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

5 Animations Introduce the Media Theory of Noam Chomsky, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stuart Hall

We watch it happen in real time, aghast as the media cannibalizes itself, turning reality into a parody of the kind we laughed at in goofy dystopian scenarios from Back to the Future, The SimpsonsIdiocracy. A brave new world of hypercredulity and monstrous disingenuousness arrived on our smart phones and TVs. It was gaudy and pernicious and lied to us like we couldn’t trust our lying eyes. We saw reality TV mainlined into reality. The response was to shout, “Fake News,” a phrase almost immediately redigested and spun into flimsy conspiracy theories. It now serves little purpose but to get the snake gnawing its tail again.

How?, many wondered in despair. Haven’t people read the theory? Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Stuart Hall, Edward Said, Roland Barthes.... Didn’t we see them proven right time and again? But chances are if you know all these names, you’ve spent time in university English, Communications, or Media Studies departments.




You’ve hung around hip bookstores and coffeeshops in cities and puzzled over critical theory, pretending, perhaps, to have read at least one of these writers you hadn't. You gave up your TV years ago and kept your kids away from screens (or told people you did). You fit, in other words, a certain profile, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it was, in the scheme of things, a pretty narrow niche, and an often pretty smug one at that.

Maybe academics, critics, and journalists need to be better at talking and listening to ordinary people? Maybe fashionable waves of anti-intellectualism need to be resisted with almost religious vigor…? Whatever the solution(s) for mass media illiteracy, we can treat the video series here from Al Jazeera as a step in the right direction. Called “Media Theorized: Reading Against the Grain,” the project takes as its subtitle a quote from Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and literary critic who distilled cultural studies into highly readable essays, dissecting everything from wrestling to tourism to advertising. Barthes showed how these genres constitute symbolic texts, just like romantic novels and morality plays, but purport to show us unmediated truth.

“Media Theorized” surveys five cultural critics who have, in five different ways, made similar analyses of mass media. Marshall McLuhan famously declared the medium as the message: its signal inseparable from its noise; Noam Chomsky demonstrated how popular consent is engineered by a narrow set of shady special interests with influence over the media; Stuart Hall showed how mass media manipulates discourses of race, class, gender, and religion to misrepresent outsiders and marginalized people and keep them in their place in the social imaginary; and Edward Said documented the long tradition of “Orientalism”---a totalizing Euro-American discourse that estranges, belittles, and dehumanizes whole countries, cultures, and religious communities.

While it’s impossible to do justice to the richness and depth of their arguments with quick summaries and pithy animation, what “Media Theorized” does well is to present this handful of academics as accessible and uniquely relevant to our current situation. This works especially well because the presenters are people used to putting theory into practice, communicating with the public, and critiquing mass media. Activists and journalists from all over the world, who have not only contributed short videos on YouTube, but thoughtful supplementary essays and interviews at the “Media Theorized” site (which also includes high resolution posters from each video.) The project is an invitation for each of us to take several steps back and ask some highly pertinent questions about how and why the stories we're told get told, and for whose benefit.

Millions of people have had enough and are demanding accountability from individual figures in the media---a positive development, to be sure, though it seems like too little too late. We need to understand the damage that’s been done, and continues to be done, by the systems mass media enable and sell. This series introduces “critical tools” we can use in our “everyday encounters” with such salesmanship.

Related Content:

Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971)

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Ballard Predicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast