Finished reading: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport 📚

· 934 words · 5 minute read
Person reading alone on a rooftop patio
Person reading alone on a rooftop patio, January 2022

A few years ago, pre-Trump, I quit social media and most news apps cold turkey. I was bothered by the effect social media dynamics had on my photography, and I was bothered by the engagement-driven nature of news apps. I wanted to listen to just myself on a creative level, and I hated the way news apps worked.

Over time I reestablished social media presences and spent some time tuning up how I read news. When I compare where I am today to where I was when I felt like I’d just had enough of all of it, I feel generally healthier. At the same time, I still catch myself exhausting the well of things to read or catch up on, and I find myself swiping down the screen in a motion Cal Newport describes as pulling the arm of a slot machine that is eating my useful minutes.

Newport’s definition of “digital minimalism” is:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

He cites three principles of digital minimalism:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

I’ve known a few people in whom I can see those principles at work, and I’ve always admired the deliberation with which they approach new technology. It has often read to me like a particular kind of self-care. I’m more of a magpie when it comes to new things and have thought that kind of self-care might be a good thing to adopt.

There are a few tics in the style that I suppose are just part of what is normal for this kind of book. The phrase “it turns out” pops up a few times. The phrase “we’re wired to …” pops up a few more. But rather than being a Jonah-Lehrer-like recitation of a bunch of studies (though a few are cited) this book is a little more quiet and less breathless. I was left feeling relieved that Newport has a full-time job he likes, because there’s a moment where it feels like the book could have tipped over into the sort of cloying pseudo-movement merchandising play but ultimately did not.

What is most compelling to me about it is less its identification of everything that is wrong with digital technology – the attention-mining, the emotional toll, the wasted time – and more its temperate prescriptions.

Yes, it does discuss a 30-day “digital declutter,” but less as a cold-turkey feat of will and more as a call to fill that time in other ways and see what you get before gradually letting things back in as you determine the ways in which they can serve you.

There is a mild fixation on doing all this “to live a more remarkable life,” and that stirs in me a peevish resistance, but it’s tempered by noting that it is okay and life-enhancing to simply do things for their own sake, or because they bring you pleasure or make your life better, and not because you should be out there crushing it in all things. It does argue in favor of more vigorous, mindful leisure, but not so much because it’s important to be constantly “productive” as much as it is because it will probably make you feel better than social-media-enabled “doing nothing.”

Published in 2019, one poignant, melancholy aspect of this book is that it spends a lot of time on the value of unmediated human connection. Its prescriptions include avoidance of assorted “like” and other reaction affordances in favor of spending time talking to people. There are a few examples that are about being with others in gyms, exercise groups, etc. that are almost jarring as we close in on two years of pandemic life. It helpfully suggests that Facetime is a great technology for keeping personal connections over distances, but cannot anticipate the dull, suffocating exhaustion of contemplating yet another video meeting for people who have spent the past two years staring into screens full of flattened, grainy faces staring back.

Finally, it was kind of interesting to see the ways in which, over the past three years since the book was published, at least Apple has begun to help implement some of the attention-preserving, deliberate living practices Newport advocates. The Screentime tool provides a way to understand how you use your phone and where your time goes. The Focus tool makes it possible to filter out notifications or tailor the interruptions you’re willing to indulge.

So, definitely recommended for its low-key vibe, and its emphasis on deliberation and care over simple prescriptions or tech abstemiousness. I’m going to give some of its ideas a try.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport 📚