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Blog // Thoughts
March 8, 2019

Digital Minimalism – Book Review

The latest book from Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism, is a well thought out argument for spending less time online.

We’re concerned about how much time we spend on our digital devices. Or how hard it is to get the attention of our kids or loved ones as they stare into their screens.

We know how easy it is to pick our smartphones to do one thing, then drift off into mindlessly scrolling through social media. Or how tempting the lure is of shared photos or updates from friends. Maybe we worry a little that we’re not using our time as well as we could. Or maybe we worry a lot that the four horsemen of the attention apocalypse (social media, email, messaging, and online video) are destroying our minds.

Cal Newport claims he has an answer for us.

Digital Minimalism Explained

Newport’s big idea is about how the principles of minimalism, which have become so popular and have helped people organise their physical lives, can also be applied to our digital lives.

Obviously this means you don’t use or sign up to every digital service just because it exists. You should embrace some limitations, such as using only services that provide definite tangible benefit to you. Because everything has possible benefits. The someday and maybe of getting noticed and discovered.

Once you get a sense of the benefits it actually gives you, then you can move onto the more challenging task of choosing which service is the best for each specific benefit. Thankfully, Newport has some clear suggestions on how to tackle this. He’s not offering hacks and tips. Digital Minimalism is a set of principles for winning back time from social media and smartphone addiction.

With the core practices in place, Newport moves onto a challenging reframing of what digital communication can and can’t do for us.

Connection And Conversation

Newport draws on the work of Shelly Turkle to make a distinction between connection and conversation. A lot of what we do online can make us feel connected to others. But this doesn’t fulfil the deeper emotional needs we hope to satisfy through conversation. Because conversations involve a lot more than exchanging words. Conversations require empathy, reading non-verbal cues, and listening. All of which makes them deeper and more rewarding.

Connection is a tool for helping conversation happen. But connection in itself is not deeply satisfying.

On a recent episode of the Cortex Podcast, CGP Grey was reflecting on his increased absence from the internet. He missed two things. The humour; being part of the in-joke meme culture. And the feeling of having lots of low-level interaction with people he knew, whom he called “conference-friends.” These are people whose company we enjoy, but whom we talk to only a few times a year. These are both examples of connection.

Newport takes issue with investing a lot of time in these kinds of connections. Instead of hitting the like button or writing quick comments, we should think of digital tools as a way to foster face to face conversations. This is very much in line with my own long-held belief that the real value of social media is the social, real-world connections. The tweet from 2017 pinned to the top of my Twitter feed says,

For long-term social media users this recalibration, away from the skim and like culture, towards using social media (and messaging) solely as tools to facilitate real-world interactions, might be a far bigger challenge than cutting back on the number of hours a month they spend online.

The Importance Of Solitude

The second half of the book considers what we might do with the time we win back, thanks to our digital minimalism. For me this was the most thought-provoking and challenging section of the book. Two topics in particular stood out – solitude and leisure.

Newport’s claim is: digital technologies have undermined our ability to be alone with our thoughts. This is partly because they’re just so good at distracting us and holding our attention, but mostly because we have a poor grasp of the importance of solitude.

We use devices and services to avoid boredom. This means we are never away from the onslaught of other people’s demands on our attention, through their messages, thoughts, images and videos. This constant input can limit our own focus, productivity, creativity, and sense of self-worth. It’s a topic Newport discussed in Deep Work. And it’s one I’ve touched on many times on this blog.

Newport uses the term “Solitude Deprivation” to describe the state of not experiencing the positive attributes of solitude, such as “…the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships.”

High Quality Leisure

Newport also discusses something he likes to call “high quality leisure.” These are recreational activities that require intense effort, have tangible results in the physical world, and a high pay-off in terms of satisfaction and sense of achievement.

In this section he discusses one of my all-time favourite books, Matthew Crawford’s Shopcraft As Soulcraft. The way we feel validation from things we make and do in the physical world is fundamentally different, and longer lasting, than online validation. This might well have roots in our evolutionary biology. So even though our work might require us to sit at a screen and manipulate things in the realm of 0s and 1s, our mind still wants to do stuff in the physical realm.

Also, if our leisure is of low quality, then there’s no compelling reason to see it as any more worthwhile than spending more time looking at screens. We may as well just drift from messages to email to social media as a way to “relax.” But if we perceive certain leisure activities as having “higher quality,” because of their benefits to us, then we’re more likely to structure our lives in favour of them, in preference to lower-quality time spent online.

Conclusion

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you won’t be surprised when I say I agree with most of Newport’s ideas. I’ve been using the tag Digital Minimalism for a while and much of the This Week I Quit series echoes suggestions in the books. In fact, Digital Minimalism ends with a call to join the “attention resistance” and some of the suggestions there are similar to things I’ve already been experimenting with.

I just wish Digital Minimalism was a better written book. Newport’s prose is the literary equivalent of wearing a polo shirt tucked into chinos. It’s functional, practical, and it gets the job done. But it isn’t sexy or inspiring.

Thankfully, Newport’s ideas are rich and helpful. We can apply the insights of minimalism to “Marie Kondo” (if I may use her as a verb) our digital life. And the results can introduce a refreshing level of simplicity to our lives.

The distinction between connection and conversation will clarify things for many long-term social media users who feel like their time online is not as satisfying as it once was, yet can’t quite put their finger on why.

But the gold in Digital Minimalism is the discussion of solitude and leisure. This is where the book goes deep. Because the real problem is not how much time we spend online – it’s how rich and satisfying our lives are. It’s also where a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as digitally distracted (because maybe they don’t use social media much, or believe their habits are well contented) might feel a definite twitch of discomfort.

Many of see, in our parents’ generation, the ability to engage in activities that require deep unbroken concentration, or to enjoy hobbies that are challenging and demanding. But increasingly we don’t see those traits in our peers, and maybe we worry we can’t always see them in our children either.

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