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 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 leaves 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.