I was fortunate enough to be able to read Cal Newport's latest book, DIGITAL MINIMALISM: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. An instant New York Times bestseller, this book chronicles Cal's thoughts on our increasing obsession with our cell phones, and the quest that he and many other "digital minimalists" undergo to break free.
Cal begins the book by discussing the "lopsided arms race" that we all face in untangling necessary communication or business endeavors from social media and our mobile devices. He discusses the novelty of the iPhone when it was first released: in the words of Andy Grignon, "This was supposed to be an iPod that made phone calls." Cal then shifts the scene to discuss that the average modern user spends two hours per day on social media and related messaging services: how much of those priceless minutes or hours are actually productive, meaningful interactions?
His argument is that it's not about usefulness, it's about autonomy - and that the average smartphone user is not foolish or gullible, but rather falling prey to an ecosystem designed to create increasing engagement and retention. Cal discusses Tristan Harris' warning on the Bill Maher show...
And Tristan's 144 page essay on "A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users' Attention."
Cal also brings up the work of Adam Alter and his work studying addiction.
As Cal states:
"After reviewing the relevant psychology literature and interviewing relevant people in the technology world, two things became clear to him. First, our new technologies are particularly well-suited to foster behavioral addictions. As Alter admits, the behavioral addictions connected to technology tend to be "moderate" as compared to the strong chemical depencies created by drugs and cigarettes...the second thing that became clear to Alter during his research is even more disturbing. Just as Tristan Harris warned, in many cases these addictive properties of new technologies are not accidents, but instead carefully engineered design features...I want to briefly focus on two forces from this longer treatment that no only seemed particularly relevant to our discussion, but as you'll soon learn, repeatedly came up in my own research on how tech companies encourage behavioral addition: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval." (page 17)
Interestingly, on page 20, Cal could almost be describing Cake.co:
"The whole social media dynamic of posting content, and then watching feedback trickle bback unpredictably, seems fundamental to these services, but as Tristan Harris points out, it's actually just one arbitrary option among many for how they could operate. Remember that early social media sites featured very little feedback - their operations focused instead on posting and finding information. It tends to be these early, pre-feedback-era features that people cite when explaining why social media is important to their life."
Cal discusses Facebook likes, Snapchat streaks, and more as tapping into our Paleolithic brain's deeply obsessed with social utility. And this leads him to proposing Digital Minimalism as a solution- because "small changes may not be enough to solve our big issues with new technologies."
Thus, Digital Minimalism is born: "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."
So how to get started being a digital minimalist? You begin to embrace new principles of economics, as epitomized by Thoreau. Clutter is costly. Very oftentimes, you get the most out of things - major purchases like a home or a car, or your digital usage habits - when you can calculate what you gain or lose from the transaction. What's your "return curve" on your digital habits? Are you able to work backwards from what's useful to you, like Amish craftspeople, to figure out if a new technology does more harm than good to help you achieve your aims and goals?
To help you achieve these states of mind, Cal suggests a digital declutter - 30 days of detoxing in which you take a break from "optional technologies" in your life, while rediscovering and focusing on the behaviors you find satisfying or meaningful.
In December 2017, Cal himself led 1,600+ volunteers through a digital detox of their own, and the surprising results helped him define and catalyze this book. The tips and tricks that they learned along the way are outlined in the book,with principles like "defining technology rules" to ensure success and prevent ending a digital detox too early for the results you're looking for. Are you curious if video games are categorized by Cal as being similar to Instagram or Facebook? Yes, they are (so is Netflix and other streaming services, for that matter).
The 30 day break is meant to give you the space and focus you need to figure out what's important to you - "outside of the world of the always-on, shiny digital." (Page 71) Many digital detoxers report that they are able to read more books than in many years, painting, making music, or other activities they felt they didn't have time for previously due to the insidious loss of time from digital distraction. The digital detox process also forces you to define what is of value to you. Is it seeing photos from family and friends? Staying up with business news? And if so, is the technology you're currently evaluating the best way to achieve it - and if so, how can you make that even more efficient and meaningful.
Cal also discusses the value of solitude - TRUE solitude that allows your brain to recharge, relax, and contemplate - and how solitude is an essential aspect of life for so many great leaders of our past like President Lincoln. Having omnipresent distraction accompany us with our digital devices means that solitude and contemplation are endangered species: why does solitude matter, and what does it provide us that we can't access any other way? Even ambient music is brought up as a factor that prevents us from being alone with our thoughts. Thus, Solitude Deprivation is a phenomenon: "a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your thoughts and free from input from other minds." (page 103) Even as recently as 20-25 years ago, it was a challenging state to achieve, but now we are seeing increased stress, anxiety, and other negative effects in younger generations who are unable to imagine contemplative solitude. Being able to find your "recharge ratio" - as per pianist Glenn Gould, "for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone" (page 111) - seems to be an increasingly important aspect of health that we've neglected.
Cal also brings up that walking is incredibly good for you: "we too should embrace walking as a high-quality source of solitude." (page 119) Walks allow you to work through professional problems, reflect on growth or development needs, or simply enjoy your surroundings, allowing your mind to recalibrate to deal with various challenges that arise. Cal suggests taking "these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone." (121) He also suggests writing letters to onesself as a form of journaling and focus exercise.
Interestingly, there is a social media paradox that Cal analyzes as surfaced by NPR:
and then another study done by Moira Burke and Robert Kraut:
Which leads Cal to posit the paradox that "Depending on whom you ask, social media is either making us lonely or bringing us joy" (137)
The best way to move forward? Cal suggests quality conversations, making time for "conversation-centric communication."
The book delves into so much more - Steve Jobs, Motorcycles, Leisure Plans - but it's worth taking the time to read it for yourself to determine what you can put into practice to help you optimize your own digital lifestyle.