The reevaluation of the worth of social media—typified by Cal Newport’s most recent “experiment”—has a singular central step: absence. The idea is that by deliberately detaching ourselves from these digital tools and services, we are better able to understand the impact they have on us and where they fit into our lives. It’s similar to the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in this case, absence helps the mind to notice. I see this practice of informational abstinence as having a similar flavour to nutritional fasting.
What is the main advantage of a nutritional fast? For me, it is that the body and its systems get a break from the constant barrage of stimuli. For example, most of us eat three meals a day, and in between those meals we snack on other foodstuffs or consume calories in liquid form. Thus, our body—and consequently, our mind—is always responding to intake. It never gets a chance to decompress. Only when we sleep are we able to suspend response to new dietary inputs (and even then, we’re digesting what we ingested in recent hours). A twenty-four-plus hour fast breaks this cycle, this chronic state of response and digestion, and forces our mind and body into a different mode of operation.
Because of this, when we come back to eating food we notice the change in state that occurs. We feel the shift that takes place. So we could say that the very cycle of fasting and consuming results in a heightened awareness. Which is what, I think, is the real virtue of social media fasting that Cal Newport et al. have stumbled upon. It’s not so much that we recognise the negatives associated with social media usage. No. When we come back to social media—or any other source of information—after a prolonged absence, we notice the negatives and the positives of both states, of immersion in information and of immersion in isolation from information.
Practitioners and researchers involved in the domains of health and fitness are starting to notice (read: relearn) the efficacy of intermittent and periodic nutritional fasting. Similarly, I think that everyone who is connected to some degree to the internet and social media will begin to notice the efficacy of intermittent and periodic informational fasting in the years to come, and implement it into their day-to-day life.