Culture, educational, nonfiction, philosophy

Digital Minimalism

digital minmalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Published February 5, 2019. Hardcover, 304 pages.

This highly anticipated new release from Cal Newport arrived at my doorstep promptly on February 5, and I read through it at a speed which is highly uncharacteristic for me. That might mean that my anticipation propelled the momentum of my study, but I suspect it is best attributed to Newport’s engaging tone. It also helps that the topic he is covering is a hot topic of the day.

It seems every where you look, you can find discussions of the perils of social media, online distraction, and the lurching menace of the world’s largest technology companies as they encroach into every area of our lives. The result is making privacy rare and more zealously guarded by many, such as this woman who disconnected from all services connected to the “big 5” tech giants. It is into this atmosphere that Cal Newport actually manages to offer a fresh perspective.

I hesitate to say that he offers a new perspective, because he doesn’t. He actually draws on the wisdom of those who have gone before, beginning with Aristotle and moving forward to more modern minds such as Wendell Berry. I am a great admirer of Wendell Berry, so the invoking of his unique and uncommon wisdom made this book all the more alluring to me.

Newport doesn’t use an abundance of pages offering tips on how to better manage your online life (although he does present a few). Neither does he use his megaphone to condemn any and all social media. Instead,  he calmly and methodically makes his case for a more intentional way of living, using an engaging and conversational tone. When he finishes, the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about the value or disadvantages of technology and online distractions in her life.

The best and most compelling arguments in the book are in the chapter dedicated to the importance of high quality leisure.  In this chapter, we find a most concise and piercing synopsis of why the subject of leisure, along with the role of the Internet in our daily lives, are such vital issues to confront. While discussing an example of a man whose time without access to the constant connection of the Internet, Newport notes that the man wasn’t missing any one specific digital activity. Rather, he was most uncomfortable with the general lack of access he was used to. Here is the linchpin of his presentation:

The more I study this topic, the more it becomes clear to me that low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. p.168

Newport doesn’t assert that this instinct is a a new thing, of course. If it were he wouldn’t be able to draw on Aristotle in his quest for solutions. Whether through drinking, television, or any other number of alternatives, man has always been tempted to revert to low-level distractions to divert ourselves from the pain of physical, emotional, and spiritual realities we’d rather not face. The difference today of course, is that it is so much easier to avoid these realities than in times past. Our comfortable, easy physical existence makes us ripe to be mined by the masters of the new attention economy.

The best parts of this book are the chapters which chart the economics and psychology behind this new way of living, and later the importance of being careful of how we use our leisure. Most importantly, the reader is admonished of the importance of leisure activities that stretch us and grow us as human beings rather than viewing leisure as a time to indulge a mindless, vegetative state via screens.

As I read the examples given, I was reminded of the scene at our house on Super Bowl Sunday. Our kids -as they always do whether we have company or not- made great food, and turned on the set mainly for the purpose of ranking the commercials. There are two people in our house who know enough about football to sit through a game and maintain interest. I am one, and one of my daughters is another. My husband, having played high school football, knows the game, but is not at all interested in watching. My interest has steadily tanked in recent years as well.

While the girls watched commercials, and chattered in between, my husband was working on a project he started for me a couple of weeks ago but which has taken a lot longer than it might have if he hadn’t begun a new job this year. As he cut, sanded, measured and worked with his hands (I offered some help as well with staining), it was a prime example of what Digital Minimalism described. Rather than sit and watch the game, which would have drained the energy from someone like him, the time was spent doing something infinitely more satisfying. In the book, Newport referenced the difference between being able to point to something -anything- produced as a result of proficiency and effort being infinitely more satisfying than a nebulous number of likes in response to a saucy tweet or a photo of your plate at a trendy new restaurant.

In addition to stressing the importance of high-quality leisure, the book also emphasizes the importance of meaningful, in-person socialization. I especially appreciated those parts of the book.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport turns on a light rather than simply railing against the darkness. As more and more people awaken to the reality that their overly connected lives are out of control, they will be looking for constructive counsel and directions out of the digital wilderness. Digital Minimalism provides both of those and does it well.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

20 thoughts on “Digital Minimalism”

  1. This is interesting. Not because I have an interest in going over ground previously plowed.

    What you brought out about meaningful leisure is VERY interesting. Because I’ve been thinking about leisure more as I have less time. I am so tired the “low quality” leisure has more appeal, but then I sit back and realize I’ve lost the ability to have actual FUN.

    Now, I do enjoy doing any number of productive activities, but those aren’t rest. Yes, I enjoy making clothing. Very much so. It is NOT so restful that I wish to pop home, have a snack, and sit down at my sewing machine. Err… no.

    But there is a line. And just as modern convenience food draws you into eating more than you’re hungry for, so too does modern low-quality entertainment. Yeah, half an hour of goofing off is nice – but 2 hours is NOT. It’s not satisfying (it’s not truly restful, it’s not truly fun) and it’s not useful.

    What I find helpful is making a conscious choice to get up from the computer when I’ve gone through the rounds and, if still tired, play a game or read a book. Or go to bed ridiculously early, which is a popular option. Those move the ball forward in ways that spending another hour picking imaginary clothing on pinterest does not.

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  2. @ Hearthie:

    Yes. The chapter on leisure was the probably the most eye-opening thing for me. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to think about that.

    Not being much of a craftswoman, I am working harder at bridging that gap. I’ve improved 1000% in the way I use the Internet over the past 2 years. So much! But I definitely need to work on the high quality leisure a bit more.

    The leisure part was interesting, and the research adding to the realization of how much research and money goes into trying to figure out how to keep folks glued to social media. Everyone knows I don’t facebook or tweet, and I took Insta off my phone a while back. I’m not as susceptible to that stuff. But I have some definite areas which warrant a need for real improvement.

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  3. Oh yeah Hearth. One more thing. In this book leisure activity is not equated with or assumed to necessarily be restful. In fact, the suggestion is that leisure activity should not be viewed solely through the lens of restfulness.

    Some leisure activity will be restful, such as reading, knitting, or socializing. But this author -drawing from older philosophy- believes that at least some of the time it is best to engage in leisure activity that is cognitively demanding, physically demanding, or both. This is where, he asserts, we will receive the most satisfaction and reward.

    Leisure is defined as the activities we engage in when not working in whatever employment may be. And it is categorized as something separate and distinct from rest, which we certainly need in proper amounts. But rest isn’t leisure.

    So yeah, sewing in your case would be considered a high-quality leisure activity. For me it would be long walks, cooking, reading, some writing, the occasional but of crochet, or studying music which I have taken up for the first time since high school.

    I also tend to socialize a lot lately.

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  4. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise.

    Every time I think of this it gives me chills. How much of my life has been wasted.

    In this book leisure activity should not be viewed solely through the lens of restfulness.

    I agree with this yet lack the words/understanding to even “think” it. Will reflect.

    Currently listening to the book Why We Sleep and it spends time on why modern people do not sleep well which has lots of overlap to this subject. Much biology is affected by digital entertainment and lack of human contact methinks. Prob will find out a lot of stuff out over the next decade or so and we won’t like it methinks.

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  5. @ SMK:

    Every time I think of this it gives me chills. How much of my life has been wasted.

    You’re not alone in that, sir.

    I agree with this yet lack the words/understanding to even “think” it. Will reflect.

    When you can articulate your thoughts, I’m very interested, so come back and share.

    Much biology is affected by digital entertainment and lack of human contact methinks. Prob will find out a lot of stuff out over the next decade or so and we won’t like it methinks.

    Anyone even remotely in tune with their bodies can already see the evidence. I know I can particularly as it relates to sleep. I need to read that book. It’s on my list.

    @ Hearth:

    We’re finding out a lot of stuff lately that just boggles the mind. We threw baby out with the bathwater in the 20th century.

    We also threw out the tub, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. H: We threw baby out with the bathwater in the 20th century.

    Curious: do you think the most damage was done by Silent/Greatest or by Boomers? I think the former (but the boomers were given so much the blame is greater).

    E: I need to read that book.

    For me it’s a become a massive “life-changer” (like maybe 20 books in my life & I think the book is poorly written too) full of mind-blowing facts. I’m now struggling (failing) to get more sleep (5-6 hr guy) now working overtime to get up to 7. But my natural cortisol/intensity is just too high to be healthy and live right. Don’t read the book if you drink coffee or alcohol either!

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  7. Who gets the blame? The turn-of-the-century. The LAST century.

    I can’t blame them really. There were any number of radical new inventions that made HUGE strides in the realms of health and wellbeing that came into existence within the late 1800s/early 1900s. I can *totally* see how they’d think of the old ways as suspect. Basic handwashing before surgery wasn’t a thing in 1850!

    And suddenly we’re eating margarine and drinking formula and plastic is the awesome and we shouldn’t cuddle our babies and sunshine is bad for you and … and…

    It really is a situation of baby with bathwater. I will keep antibiotics, thanks. Just because I think we’re STUPID to use them how we use them doesn’t mean I don’t want them to be used. I am very happy not to have smallpox, even though I don’t get the flu shot. (Would someone PLEASE mention that our homeless crisis is a public health crisis, because of hygiene issues that have been known since the bronze age?)

    We have to learn to balance new information with wisdom. That means we have to wait and look at long term and second-fourth-seventh level side-effects to our decisions. We can’t go throwing baby out again because our ancestors were dumb – no reason to compound their dumb.

    Wisdom. We have to search out WISDOM.

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  8. Curious: do you think the most damage was done by Silent/Greatest or by Boomers? I think the former (but the boomers were given so much the blame is greater).

    I think Hearth’s answer is the correct one: This thing started at the turn of the century. The Great Depression and WWII slowed it down a great deal for a bit (because survival trumps frivolity), but I think it’s simplistic to blame either generation.

    My dad was a “Silent” and I can tell you, he didn’t raise any entitled princesses or princes. Perhaps being a black man from one of the worst Southern states (Louisiana) had something to do with that, but I am always a little incredulous when I hear Silents blamed. However, removing my dad from the equation, I can see how one draws that conclusion. The Boomers after all, were the children of the Silents.

    After the hell of the depression and WWII, coupled with the re-emergence of a technocratic society, that generation was less equipped to fight against the overthrow of longstanding traditions, like Chesterton’s fence references. So when someone “smarter” decided that the fences served no obvious purpose and should be torn down, they allowed the fences to be torn down. They realized too late that the fences were actually quite useful.

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  9. Elspeth said: “Leisure is defined as the activities we engage in when not working in whatever employment may be.”

    Elspeth, forgive me if this is a stupid question, as I am not a SAHM. You mentioned cooking as a leisure activity, but isn’t that essentially part of your “employment”? Unless it’s something you enjoy so much that you classify it as “leisure” even though it’s part of your daily caregiver routine?

    I guess I would have the same question for Hearthie with regards to sewing, as I know she makes a lot of clothing for her family.

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  10. No problem Curly Sue.

    Yes. Cooking is a part of my *employment*. But I also enjoy it for its own sake. Reading, experimenting, trying new things, etc. That means on days when I have the time I go much farther than simply the duty of providing sustenance.

    Does that make sense?

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  11. Elspeth & Hearthie:

    So,
    Productive/necessary + not enjoyable = “work”
    Productive + enjoyable = “leisure”

    Is that a good way to sum it up? So, one person’s leisure could be another person’s work and vice versa.

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  12. Productive + enjoyable = “leisure”

    That’s a pretty decent sum up of the author’s perspective. Even if the leisure activity is somewhat physically demanding (say, building a set of raised bed garden boxes) it still qualifies as leisure.

    The takeaway was that leisure should be productive (hence the distinction of “high quality leisure”). It doesn’t have to be physically demanding. Knitting for instance is productive yet not physically demanding.

    However, the fact that it is physically demanding doesn’t change the fact that it is leisure.

    So yes, a woman who sews as a seamstress to pay the bills is working, and is probably producing higher output and productivity than Hearthie, who sews for the love of it.

    He wasn’t saying that there is no place for what he would consider low quality leisure (Netflix, Internet surfing, social media connecting). He was simply suggesting that those things should be tightly controlled -scheduled even- so that we don’t miss opportunities for high quality leisure.

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  13. LOL That was for Curly Sue.
    Compare: I enjoy sewing things at a high level of skill/materials for my family. It gives me a serious sense of satisfaction. And one of my “enjoyment” marks is the quality of the fabric I work with. Tactile pleasure is a thing over here.
    Vs: If I wanted to profit, I’d have to sew multiple items at a lower price point. I’d need to sew duplicates of everything. I find that kind of production mind-numbing. *And* it doesn’t pay well.

    No one who actually *does* the sewing gets paid well. Designers get bank, but even the “little hands” at a couture house work far harder than they’re rewarded.

    My biggest item of profit is that I can afford to make clothing that I could not afford to buy…. or would choose not to budget in. That doesn’t pay the mortgage.

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  14. What Hearthie says about sewing. Mrs. Bubba and I have done quite a bit for ourselves and our kids, and it enables us to have much nicer clothes than we would otherwise be able to have. But on the street, the picture that comes to mind is a Saville Row (bespoke road in London, $5k is on the low end for a suit) apprentice sewing happily while wearing shoes with a hole in the sole.

    You might be able to make ends meet well if you got enough word of mouth advertising to do a lot of business in your own town/neighborhood, but easier said than done.

    That noted, it’s not for no reason that Ecclesiastes 2:24 notes that there is little better for a man to enjoy his work, his food, and his wine (or kombucha).

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