A Digital Review of Cal Newport’s ‘Digital Minimalism’

calnewport_digitalminimalism.pngEveryone and their neighbourhood cat has been talking about minimalism lately. And why not? Even though she never actually uses the word, Marie Kondo and her Netflix Original Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, brought the word into the general public’s consciousness. Before Kondo, we had internet bloggers like The Minimalists, Miss Minimalist (Francine Jay) and Zen Habits (Leo Babauta). You had TED Talks, and TV shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive. We regaled in old-timey horror stories like the Collyer brothers. I willingly engaged in the trend, devouring Kondo’s classic, Babauta’s The Power of Less, and many others I’ve reviewed in my annual wrapups on this blog here.

Then came digital minimalism. Minimalism but for the online world. I was intrigued. I was procrastinating, as we all tend to do, and my website of choice was YouTube. Click. Click. Hours passed. Click. A different video popped up. A TED Talk. I had to click. This one was called Quit social media. I’d been reading into the damaging effects of social media around that same time.  People like ex-Google engineer Tristan Harris had introduced me to the phenomenon of digital minimalism. There’s a pretentious subreddit called r/NoSurf; pretentious in the I Am Very Smart “only books can count as an intellectual pursuit/hobby, not those evil televisions and…video games” sort of way. I clicked on the video. I watched. I thought for a moment. I was annoyed this man, Cal Newport, had never had social media in his life, yet claimed to be an expert in social media. The aforementioned r/NoSurf was obsessed with Newport and his book Deep Work. So I forgot about him. At least until his latest book was released, and I was interested. And this here is your book👏review👏 today:

Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World was released in February this year. It arrived at the library the same time as three other books. I thought to myself: How can I read four books in one month? So I decided Digital Minimalism was probably the one to start with, as it would encourage me to spend less time on the internet, and therefore read the four books more quickly. Oh, what wishful thinking! Come Week Four, I was halfway through Digital Minimalism, and nowhere near beginning the other three. Now it’s the end of April, I’ve got a 2/4 track record, which ain’t bad at all.

But does that mean Digital Minimalism was a waste of time? Nope. On the contrary, it was fascinating to read from the experiences of someone who has never had a social media account in his life. One might expect a Luddite (Newport even touches upon them); someone so terrified of technology, the mere sight of an iPhone will send them running for the hills, and they have a sixth sense regarding WiFi, breaking out in hives and monstrously crimson rashes. Newport is a professor of computer science, and even owns a iPhone, which he uses for FaceTime and text messages. He has a website, and even stresses, that when used correctly, the internet can be an invaluable tool for progress and self-growth. The only downside was sometimes Newport’s knowledge of various social media sites could be limited, and even though he spoke about the attention economy (seriously: anyone using social media should learn about the attention economy) and the insidiousness of sites like Facebook and Reddit, he didn’t truly understand the addictive qualities of these sites on a basic level. How could he? He comes from an outsider’s perspective, peeking in on a world he doesn’t understand, because he is lucky enough to have avoided the pervasive peer pressure of signing up to these sites/falling for smartphone traps.

Much of this book was information that I already knew, and previous “digital minimalists” had already told me: Social media is addictive and these sites are designed to be as addictive as possible and suck as much of your time as humanly possible. What I was reading in Digital Minimalism could have been contained in a much shorter book. For those of you reading this blog post just for those nuggets of wisdom, there’s not much. Basically, he suggests to take a 30 day detox from social media and, when you return, to only keep the social media/websites that serve you. Here’s my notes:

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While I haven’t started anything resembling a 30 day social media detox—I did three weeks without Facebook and Twitter, which was insightful—this is the part you should stick to if you really want to get something out of Newport’s work. For all his faffing on and on and on about the side effects of social media and the attention economy, this is the reason why most readers are here. They want the quick fixes. But, as Newport says, there are no quick fixes. Social media is purposely designed to keep you clicking and liking and staring aimlessly at the glow. The 30 day detox exists to help you find out what you truly value in life. Spend your time doing things that will bring you value. Newport gives examples of people who have replaced low-value social media with high-value activities that bring them joy.

  • Pete, a handyman, who uses YouTube for how-to-handyman videos
  • Matthew, an ex-philosophy student who learned a trade and started his own store
  • A group of people who retired young and moved to the countryside, where they spend most of their time living off the earth
  • Learn on the guitar every song from the A-side of Meet the Beatles! by restringing and re-tuning your guitar, and playing the guitar once a day
  • Focus on meal prep instead of ordering UberEats, and play Vampire: The Masquerade with your family instead of just plonking down in front of Netflix
  • The Amish and similar groups have one person—a technology person—who checks out the new technology and decides for the entire community if it provides more value than not

One of the concerns I had with Digital Minimalism was Newport’s Americentric language. We had lines like:

  • “This American approach to information is much like our approach to healthy eating”
  • “There was a time in this country when most people were handy”.

I understand Newport is a professor, and he likely focuses on his area of expertise with an American lens, but it felt grating and took me out of the work. There was even a long-winded bit about Abraham Lincoln utilising alone time in order to be more productive, which felt like he was only talking to American citizens and encouraging them to get off social media as a sense of patriotic duty. For someone who is well-read and seemingly quite intelligent, one would think Newport would realise he has readers from countries outside the United States of America.

Digital Minimalism is a good read for anyone already interested in the addictive nature of social media and the internet in general. While it could have been condensed, it is still a fascinating read from someone who has not yet succumbed to the illusive power of the all-powerful “Create a new account” and scroll-feeds. However, this also detracts from a lot of Cal Newport’s writing: how can someone who has never succumbed to the illusive power of likes and follows tell us the reader how not to be as addicted? The tips he gives near the end of the book are useful, as are the testimonials from those who have completed his 30-day digital detox. In a nutshell: vaguely important words from a pretentious, out-of-touch professor that includes some rare nuggets of usefulness. If only there was a Digital Minimalism written by someone who has experienced internet addiction first-hand. Wait…they’re probably too busy scrolling down their Facebook feed, liking Aunt Debbie’s Minion gif on her friend Karen’s post about taking away the damn kids.

Overall: 3.25/5

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