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}

Productivity

I've become increasingly unhappy about my productivity during my spare time, and especially how it's affected by the Internet.

People who know me might chuckle, because there have certainly been stretches of my life which have been completely caught up online. That isn't as much the case these days, though. I'm not much into social media, blogs and the like are a much smaller part of my life than they once were. And over the years, I've studied, I have projects, I do things.

Instead, it's a feeling, knowing that no matter what I've gotten done over the past week, or month, or year, I could've accomplished more. It's still all too easy to get caught up reading the news, random stuff on the web, one site to the next, half an hour lost from an innocuous web search, opening up a browser on my phone on the train instead of reading something more interesting, losing the occasional evening to YouTube.

Frustration builds, and then all you need is a nudge. For me, the nudge was coming across Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, which is really the reason for this post. Having set the scene, review to follow.

{2019.09.02 21:03}

Overheard (On An Airplane)

Overheard while our plane was taxiing down the runway after landing, some kids and their father:

"Why do airports always smell like this?"
"That's the smell of jet fuel"
(pause)
"WHY'S IT LEAKING?"

{2019.08.31 10:09}

Boris

I've been avoiding the news (more on that another time) but I'm reliably informed that Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister.

By 'reliably informed', I mean it's been on every billboard, headline and TV screen for the past few days and everybody's been talking about it. Except me (mostly) because I am staying well out of politics, here and in real life.

But yes. Politics aside, poisoned chalice and all that. Gluggety glug.

{2019.07.28 15:33}

Leadership Election 2019

I avoid politics on the blog mostly, but leadership elections are an indulgence I can't deny myself.

It's been 3 very short, or very long years since the last Tory leadership election (take your pick). Back then, all ra ra and blue rosettes on the coffin lid. Now, Theresa May, bereft of authority, respect, and most of all, a Withdrawal Agreement.

The papers say she's now trying to rush spending commitments and legislation through parliament to establish her "legacy", which strikes me as rather optimistic and not just a little misguided. A bit like her Brexit strategy, come to think of it. The poor aunty's only legacy is likely to be "Botched Brexit" and "WORST PRIME MINISTER EVAR". These days, Gordon Brown goes to bed every night with a smile. Worst. Evar.

A sad way to end a career, but while I have some empathy for her on a human level, my overriding sense is just, as they say in Afrikaans, jy wou mos. It didn't take a genius to see that this particular stint of Prime Ministery was going to be a poisoned chalice, but she took the thing anyway and drank loooong and bloody hard from it.

And so again, a Leadership Election. People are caught up in the tribalism and spectacle of it all, but really, this is still just politicians being politicians: that poisoned chalice is still there, whispering "driiiiink meeee, driiiiink meeeee", and while poor old Tezza slinks back to her crypt, a shadow of her former cadaverous self, the greedy buggers have all still lined up for a swig.

Things are different this time around, though. Whereas the previous affair seemed to be over before it started, the new one seems to be dragging on forever. And whereas the previous one saw Boris' campaign end up like one of those rancid mushroomy things in horror movies which go 'pssssh' and deflate when you prod them, this time around he's played it just right, and he's firm favourite to become the next Leader of HM's Goverment.

In fact, with a couple of weeks to go, I think most of the country are now just sitting around thinking "can he get to the end without cocking it up entirely?" Given it's Boris, nobody would bet on it.

{2019.07.07 20:55}

TCO v4

I started writing up a little post in which I indulged in some first-rate navel-gazing about blogging and how my blog is 16 years old and how things have changed and how I blog less and less and have come close to shutting the whole thing down a few times but don't because this and that and etc etc etc.

But who needs that? Suffice it to say that while I blog far less frequently than I used to, I do want to keep my blog, but felt it was time to make a few changes.

The main and most obvious change is that my blog (and tech blog) now live at my personal site, colinpretorius.org. For over a decade, my blog's been at thecorneroffice.org and my personal site had a single page saying "there nothing here, my blog's over there though". Ten years ago, it was sort of cool, a nice touch for my blog to have its own domain name. Ten years on, my blog is quieter, and I had a hankering to consolidate things, so I have.

I felt slightly guilty about breaking links to the handful of posts which are linked to from elsewhere, and still get traffic, but those are easily dealt with. I may flog off thecorneroffice.org domain one day, but for now it just redirects to here.

The second thing that's changed is how it looks. What actually happened is that I changed the blog's stylesheet to be mobile-friendly for the first time, and in doing so, I couldn't resist tweaking a few other thing as well.

... and with that done, The Corner Office can now continuing ticking over with minimal attention from myself and reader(s) for a while longer.

{2019.06.12 22:14}

Maggie

Overhead in the local Tesco, a mother to her adult son.

Yeah, you have to flush a couple of times because Maggie (something) (something)

It's possible that if I'd heard the rest, this blog post would never have happened.

{2019.05.06 07:57}

Wisdom

The children, overheard:

It's OK to be jealous, as long as it doesn't ruin your day, or anyone else's

{2019.02.09 14:07}

Snow Report 2019 II

The threatened month-end Beast from the East turned out to be a bit more snow falling this week, on and off. We had perhaps 1 or 2 cm overnight on Friday, but it didn't stick around for long.

Oddly enough, I noticed today that there was more unmelted snow on one side of our suburb than the other, which suggests some microclimate effects I'd not been aware of. Sadly we live in the melted snow part. On the upside, maybe that means lower gas bills.

{2019.02.02 14:10}

Snow Report 2019

You might call it my own personal way of tracking the onset of global warming, but I've written about snow since we moved the UK a long time ago.

A few snowflakes fell one night in December and melted on hitting the ground. I could've blogged about that; I didn't, and not being bothered to write about half-hearted snowflakes accomplishing nothing is in keeping with tradition too.

Then, apparently, we had more snow last night. Only I didn't get to see it, because I'm battling an epic case of man flu and was fast asleep through the whole thing. There was nothing on the ground this morning, just a thick layer of ice on top of the car.

There are rumours that there'll be more Beasts from the East this year, but until it happens, it's best not to get one's hopes up.

{2019.01.23 18:34}

« Older