Digital Minimalism

by Cal Newport

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Publisher: Porfolio/Penguin
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 0-525-53654-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 256

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Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown with a long-standing side interest in personal productivity and career development. I first ran across his work with Deep Work, the thesis of which is that the most valuable resource for knowledge workers is concentration and the ability to think deeply about a topic, but our work environments and tools are structured to undermine that concentration. I found, and still find, Deep Work persuasive, even if that hasn't fully translated into following its recommendations.

This book is only glancingly about concentration, however. Newport has gotten interested in what he calls "digital minimalism," joining the chorus of people who say that smart phones and social media are bad for your brain. If you're already starting to roll your eyes, you're not alone. I think Newport has a few interesting things to say and successfully avoids most of the moral panic that infests news media coverage of this topic, but I'd rather read more in the vein of Deep Work.

Newport's basic thesis is sound: Social networks, and to a lesser extent smart phones and mobile apps in general, are designed to make money for their authors by monetizing your attention. The companies behind them aren't opposed to making your life better if that helps hold your attention, but it's not their primary goal, nor is it clear if they know how to improve your life in any meaningful way. They do know, extremely well, how to exploit human psychology to keep you returning to their product.

How they do this is a topic of much speculation and analysis. Newport primarily blames three things: the ubiquitous availability of mobile devices, the addictive power of intermittent positive reinforcement, and exploitation of the human desire for social approval.

The second of those is, I think, the least obvious and the one with the most interesting psychological research. Behavioral experiments in psychology (specifically, Michael Zeiler's 1971 experiment with pigeons) seem to indicate that unpredictable rewards can be more addictive than predictable rewards. Zeiler compared pigeons who were rewarded for every button press with pigeons who were sometimes rewarded and sometimes weren't at random, and found that the second group pressed the button twice as much. Newport argues that social media interactions such as the like button, or even just searching posts for something interesting or unexpected, produce exactly this sort of unpredictable, random positive reinforcement, and are thus more addictive than reliable and predictable rewards would be.

The other points are more obvious, and expand on themes Newport discussed in his previous books. Mobile devices plus social media provide convenient and immediate access to lightweight social interactions. We can stay lightly in touch with far more people than we could interact with in person, and easily access the small mental and social rewards of curiosity, life news, and content-free moments of connection. As you might expect from Newport's focus on concentration and deep thinking, he considers this ubiquitous, shallow distraction to be dangerous. It requires little sustained effort, offers few meaningful rewards, and is developed and marketed by companies with an incentive to make it mildly addictive. Newport believes these sorts of trivial interactions crowd out deep and meaningful ones and can make us feel perpetually distracted and harried.

So far, so good; this is a defensible take on social media. But it's also not very groundbreaking, and is only a small part of this book. Most of Digital Minimalism is about what Newport proposes we do about it: Cut back significantly (at first, completely) on social media and replace it with other activities Newport finds more worthy.

To give him credit, he doesn't fall for the moralizing simplification that either screens or social media are inherently bad. His thesis is that social media is one of a number of tools we can choose to use, and that we should make that choice thoughtfully, base it on the value that tool can bring compared to other ways we could spend the same time, and restrict any tool we do choose to only the purposes for which it has value. He therefore doesn't propose dropping social media entirely; rather, he recommends deciding what purpose it serves for you and then using it only for that purpose, which can often be done in a half-hour on the weekend from a desktop computer rather than in numerous interrupted intervals throughout the day on a phone.

I think this is sensible, but maybe that's because I'm already (mostly) doing what Newport suggests. I never created a Facebook account (thankfully, my family doesn't use it). My one social media time sink is reading Twitter, but knowing my tendency to get into arguments on-line, I have an iron-clad rule to treat Twitter as strictly read-only and never post, thus avoiding at least the social approval aspects. I learned my lesson on Usenet that on-line arguments can expand to fill all available time, and it's worth thinking very hard about what I'm trying to accomplish. There's usually something else I could be doing that would either be more fun or more productive (and often both).

I was therefore less interested in Newport's advice and more interested in how he chose to provide it and in what he recommends people substitute for social media. This is a mixed bag.

Those who follow his blog will know that Newport is relentlessly apolitical in public. That's a more severe problem for Digital Minimalism than it is for Deep Work because a critique of social media begs to be a critique of marketing-driven capitalism and the economic and social systems that support building commercial empires on top of advertising. Newport predictably refuses to follow that thread. He makes specific, limited, and targeted criticisms of social media companies that go only as far as observing that they commodify our attention, but absolutely refuses to look at why attention is a commodity or what that implies about our economic system. I was unsurprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Newport also freely mixes in his personal biases and is rather too credulous when reading studies or authors who agree with him. Frequent references to Thoreau and Walden as examples of minimalism sound a bit odd once you know that Thoreau's mother occasionally cooked for him and did his laundry. Minimalism based on other people's (gendered) labor is perhaps not the note Newport was trying to strike. In another version of the same problem, he's enamored of the modern minimalist movement and FIRE bloggers (Financial Independence, Retire Early), and while I'm generally sympathetic to people who opt out of the endless advertising-driven quest to acquire more things, presenting these folks as successes of minimalism rather than a choice made available via inherited wealth or access to high-paying contract work is dubious. I suppose I'll take my allies against capitalism where I can find them, but I'd rather they be a bit more politically aware.

Also on the bias front, Newport is oddly obsessed with in-person conversations and physical hobbies. He's dismissive of on-line relationships and friendships, throws out some dubious arguments about the lack of depth and emotional nuance in text-based communications, and claims that nothing done on a computer, even programming, fully counts as craft. This may well be true of him personally, but speaking as an introvert who has had multiple deep, decades-long friendships conducted entirely via letters and on-line chat, he is wrong to universalize his own preferences. Writing is different than in-person interactions with the full range of verbal and physical cues, and I wouldn't recommend eliminating the latter entirely, but there are forms of written interaction that are not shallow social media. And I will vigorously defend the thoughtful maintenance of a free software project as craft and high-quality leisure equal to woodworking.

This is not a bad book, exactly. It has an even narrower target audience than Newport's other books, namely well-off people who use social media, but those people exist and buy books. (Newport probably thinks that the book might be helpful to people who are less well off. I think he's wrong; the book is full of unmarked assumptions about availability of the life choices that come with money.) It says some sensible things about the motives of social media companies, although it doesn't take that analysis nearly far enough. And it contains some reasonable suggestions about how to significantly reduce one's personal use of social media if you need that sort of thing (and if your biases are mostly compatible with the author's).

That said, I thought Newport was saying something interesting and somewhat more novel in Deep Work. Digital Minimalism is in line with numerous other articles about clawing bits of your life back from social media — more moderate than most, more detailed, and a bit more applied, but nothing you can't find elsewhere. Hopefully Newport has gotten it out of his system and will go back to writing about practicing concentration and improving workplace communication methods.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-02-24

Last modified and spun 2020-02-25