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Onboarding II: Between Minimalism and Privacy

I recently examined whether or not it is worth spending your time trying to onboard friends, family, colleagues and strangers to using digital privacy tools. In that post, I described the success story of the messenger tool Signal, but conclude with some ambivalence about the feasibility of getting others to adopt the tools I use.

In this follow-up post, I want to explore why digital minimalism may have greater allure than discussions about digital privacy, which are complex, yet inadvertently instill habits for protecting personal data.

Digital minimalism's appeal

Perhaps minimalism has a broad appeal, because it is a version of the dream of tidiness and organisation, promoted by gurus like Mary Kondo. With our stuff, minimalism is next to godliness, whereas real-life stories of hoarding are a circus roadshow. I honestly don't know why humans put spatial organisation on such high moral ground, but I am as guilty of this as the next person.

One of the proponents of digital minimalism is computer science professor Cal Newport, who argues for more measured use of digital tools in our professional and personal lives. I read his book Digital Minimalism this year with interest. It does not succumb to the self-help sin of stretching one decent idea out over several chapters using filler language. I found Newport's ideas concise and relevant from his perspective as a computer scientist. I see this book on display in every bookstore, showing that it has wide appeal.

With that in mind, perhaps minimalism is a better entry point for conversations about privacy tools. The idea that less is more is makes immediate sense. From a privacy perspective, less is more too; the fewer apps you install on your phone, for example, the lower the risk of spilling data to third parties without your knowledge.

Minimalism in parenting

It's not totally right to fit parenting under 'onboarding'. Up to a certain age, your kids don't have a choice and have to follow the rules the parents have established for the home. Hopefully, some good rules turn into habits that stick and are continued into adulthood. So here's a review of parenting strategies I've covered in the blog so far, that may also shed light on the overlap between minimalism and privacy.

I describe this rule in one of my very first articles. We still adhere to the rule, in part because our Wi-Fi signal does not reach as far as the bedrooms in the back of the house. Keeping digital devices out of the bedroom does sometimes require creative solutions (for music, homework), but on the whole, I strongly believe in the benefits of not allowing digital, networked devices in the bedroom. This is not only good for protecting privacy, but also for general child safeguarding. I see the one simple rule as a success story, and one where the overlap between digital minimalism and digital privacy works.

I have described this over several posts (here, and here, for example). By not carrying a smart phone with them at all times, my kids not only side-step the trap of developing low-threshold addictive habits in order to avoid moments of boredom, they are also spending a lot less time downloading and engaging with third party apps that may have data collection as their business model.

My kids are familiar and comfortable with using Linux distros like Ubuntu on their laptops, and de-Googled operating systems on smartphones. As they get older, I fully expect them to make their own decisions and perhaps return to the Microsoft/Apple fold, but at least they will have experienced first-hand that one OS does not rule them all. I assume that open source Linux operating systems and their packages are much less likely to feed the data mining machine.

My oldest child is now an adult, and so I took to opportunity to ask what impact, if any, these parenting decisions had. That discussion can be read here.

Modeling digital minimalism practices

When it comes to the adults in my life - friends, family, colleagues and strangers, I have no qualms about using digital minimalism as a starting point for a conversation about digital privacy choices that we have.

The Light Phone 2 is a feature phone with an e-ink touch screen. Having it enables me to to leave my smartphone at home most days. One advantage is that this credit card-sized devices looks neat and attractive. I have had many conversations about my digital privacy choices that started with the LP2's interesting appearance. People ask 'What is that?' and I am happy to show & tell, and then continue the conversation.

This is a rule that works for me. While I have reiterated how easy it is to change your online habits simply by charging your smartphone in the living room each night, I don't know of anyone who has followed my lead on this. That includes my own partner.

Adults make their own choices. This brings me back to the question in my first post, about whether the goal of onboarding as many people to digital privacy tools is worth putting effort into...or not. I suppose the fact I write this blog shows a part of me believes that it is a worthwhile endeavor; I am trying to lower the barriers to onboarding by being honest about the problems I have run into when I tried these tools myself.

I've recently had to give in and stop using the Light Phone 2 as my main device when traveling. For some reason, my SIM card sometimes doesn't connect to the network when I travel abroad, which is pretty frustrating. Plus, I have to bring both devices and hotspot from the LP2 to my smartphone. So last month, I stopped trying, and now I just swap my SIM card to my CalyxOS phone for the duration of the journey and leave the LP2 at home. I do notice that when I carry a smartphone on me all the time, I quickly develop habits of addiction, checking for updates and reading before bed. In that sense, I am not able to model digital minimalism well when I travel. It does honestly feel like a relief to swap the SIM card back into the Light Phone when I return home each time.

When I am out with my partner, I do insist on face-to-face conversations. We are there to have a good time together, not to check updates via the Internet. I find it depressing to look over at other tables in a restaurant and see four faces around table lit by the glow of their smartphones, not talking.

Failure to minimalise

Oddly, writing this blog has taken me on a trajectory opposite to minimalism. I now spend more time on social media than before, because places like Twitter and Reddit are very effective for building engagement. Once you are on these platforms, I find it hard not to get distracted by all the other posts. I have thought about quitting Twitter, but I have found it a surprisingly effective way to reach out to some of the big names in the community. I do see growth on Mastodon, and I hope that will continue.

I have also described the irony of ending up obsessing over devices, applications and operating systems in the pursuit of digital privacy. A true minimalist would argue it's not worth it—just use mainstream tools and spend less time on your devices. I think there is a case for this approach too.


In this second article about onboarding, I wanted to explore how discussions on digital minimalism can be a good first step towards conversations about privacy, because the idea of minimalism is straight forward and simple. To add to that, using fewer apps and devices preserves privacy almost by default. Persuasive arguments for digital privacy can require quite a bit of context, which takes time. The would-you-give-the-government-your-house-key? trope is too simplistic. Try explaining to someone who is new to crypto currencies why a coin like Monero is the direct opposite of a digital coin created by your bank, privacy-wise. To them, Monero and CBCDs all fall under the 'crypto' banner. When stories become long and require multiple stepping-stones before you can arrive at your argument's conclusion, there is a real risk of listeners losing interest.

In my third and final post on this topic, I will look more closely at having these conversations.


Reducing the Number of Apps on Your Smartphone

Cal Newport's website and the interview with Newport on Sam Harris' Making Sense podcast in November 2022.

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