the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

Digital Minimalism

Having set the scene in my previous post, this is my review of Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport.

You could guess from the title that the theme of the book is some form of turn off your damned phone. Pretty much, but needless to say there's a bit more to it than that.

The book's argument is this: the Internet, digital technology, online apps and social media have been revolutionary, and our world has changed enormously in the space of a decade or two. But it's happened so rapidly that we've never stopped to consider whether all of this is actually good for us, and whether how we use it really adds to our lives.

A development alongside this has been the rise of the attention economy: how much money gets made as a result of keeping people staring at their phones and web browsers, and how addictive apps and online experiences are now intentionally designed to be. To many tech companies, we're link and like-clicking dopamine junkies to be cultivated for eyeball time. We're not the customer, we're the product.

All fine and well, and if you're reading the book this is a message you're probably amenable to. Newport argues that good intentions and tweaks to your online habits are unlikely to work against the onslaught of tricks and temptations arrayed against you. Instead, he proposes that you approach the online world with an intentional philosophy, which he calls Digital Minimalism.

The idea is the opposite of our current approach to technology, which you might call Digital Maximalism. Instead of using the web, apps or social media because it might be fun or possibly useful, start with a default of "nope." The minimalist approach is to ask whether the technology really adds to your life, and even if it does, are you using it in the best possible way to get whatever you want done? And if the answer isn't a clear yes, you don't use it, or you find a way to use it differently (you "optimise" your use of it, which generally means "far less of it").

That's Digital Minimalism in a nutshell. It isn't about Luddism, or avoiding technology completely - just changing how you use it, and approach it.

With this explained, the book then consists of two parts.

The first is Newport's suggested way of breaking free: the Digital Declutter. If you're going to go minimalist, your best way of achieving this is to spend 30 days in which you turn off everything except what you need to avoid getting fired or divorced, basically. Then have a life that isn't tied to a screen or the Internet and at the end of the month, add back things if you really think they're going to add to your life, and do so "optimally". Hopefully your 30 days of freedom have shown you that a life without screens is possible, and more rewarding.

The second half of the book covers a number of topics intended to help you along your way, and provide food for thought as you're doing the declutter. With chapters titled "Spend Time Alone", "Don't Click 'Like'", "Reclaim Leisure" and "Join the Attention Resistance", you get the gist of what they have to say.

The chapters on Solitude and Leisure had the most impact on me, so much so that I'll probably do separate write-ups about them. But in summary, solitude has a much narrower definition than you'd perhaps think, meaning being free of any imposition of other minds on your own. That includes things like music, reading, etc. This surprised me and led me to question some of my own notions about how much "solitude" I actually experience. The chapter on Leisure challenged me and my "programming and computers" hobby interests the most, with arguments in favour of a more physical, analog approach to leisure.

In some respects, the book feels more geared to outright social media junkies, and as I mentioned, that's not me. So some of the case studies and suggestions that I'd have hours and hours of free time and take on awesome new hobbies if I turned my back on Facebook were off the mark for me. My problem isn't sinking hours and hours into the Internet every night, it's more like losing the occasional hour or two, more often than I'd like, and knowing that my life would be better with less negativity from the news and social media.

There were also parts of the book which felt a little over the top, where anti-attention economy polemic got in the way of making good points. This was particularly so in the last chapter, eg. "my research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services - dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut".

That kind of writing doesn't work for me. But I should say that bits like that are infrequent and they don't define the book: for the most part the book is solid advice and a lot of good food for thought. And even the 'operating procedures' thing, which I thought was a bit much when it first came up in an earlier chapter, is actually a decent idea that I ended up putting to use, and I must admit that as much as I didn't like the term, I couldn't think of a better one.

In summary, I was just expecting something to tell me to turn off my damned phone, and instead the book told me a lot more. It told me what I wanted to hear, and sometimes told me things I wasn't expecting to hear, and sometimes didn't want to hear, but I think were worth hearing anyway.

This is a self-help book which I've actually taken to, and started putting the ideas to use. I'm writing this towards the end of a digital declutter, and it has been refreshing. I plan to write more about the experience, assuming I'm not too busy doing non-digital things to find the time.

{2019.09.12 21:37}

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