Book Summary: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

A book summary of the key ideas from Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport, along with the view from the blog.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: Addictive by design: Technologies, such as social media, have been deliberately engineered to retain as much of our attention as possible.

#2: Digital minimalism: The addictive nature of these technologies means a more radical approach is required, where only a limited range of online optimised activities are used to support the things we value.

#3: The digital declutter: This transformation in our relationship with technology begins with carefully a planned 30-day digital declutter. This is intended to break away from technology, before reintroducing technologies only according to what really supports what we value.

#4: Solitude deprivation: Our constant and compulsive need for connection has left us less able to harness our own thoughts. Some simple practices can help rekindle our independent thinking.

#5: Reclaiming conversation and leisure: To meet the needs of our social brains, we must prioritise ‘conversation’ over ‘connection’. And to sustainably cut out the worst of our digital habits, we should cultivate high-quality leisure in its place.

#6: Ending the ‘foundational’ technology perception: The fragility of attention economics is its reliance on the view that technologies are ‘foundational’. If we move past this view by adopting a range of practices, we can resist the attack on our attention and enhance our quality of life.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

  • New digital communication technologies have transformed how we are allocating our attention and may even be damaging our health.
  • The book centres on a philosophy to address this, encouraging a more intentional approach to technology, along with associated practices to help embrace this philosophy.

Key Idea #1: Addictive by design

  • Few predicted how novel ideas like Facebook and the iPhone would come to dominate our time and attention.
  • Nobody debates the potential usefulness of these tools, but there is a serious issue of autonomy – checking phones compulsively, missing moments in life for want of a constant need to document to a virtual audience, etc.
  • There is a conscious attack on this autonomy by the big players, who have designed tools to be deliberately addictive. As Newport puts it:

“People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”

  • How firms encourage behavioural addiction:
    • Intermittent positive reinforcement – Unpredictability triggers a dopamine release, and this is characteristic in social media (e.g. posting a status or tweet and waiting for likes and retweets) but also in browsing-only content. The whole process of feedback (posting and waiting for responses) is central to the behavioural addiction.
    • Drive for social approval – Technologies have hijacked our evolutionary drive to manage our social standing. The feedback process is often about seeking social approval (likes, tags, retweets).

Key Idea #2: Digital minimalism

  • Newport’s contention is clear: small breaks and tips aren’t sufficient to counter the addictive forces at play with our brains.
  • Instead, he suggests a philosophy of “digital minimalism”:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

  • The intention is to work backwards from deep values to technology choices, asking questions of if it adds value and if it’s the best way to add this value. Newport contrasts this with the everyday maximalism of adopting technology where any sign of potential benefit is enough.

The principles of digital minimalism:

  1. Clutter is costly: Too many devices, apps and services create a negative cost that swamps the small benefits of each in isolation. Newport argues this principle in the context of Henry David Thoreau’s economics: that benefits should be viewed in the context of the “life” (time) spent, and that digital use produces only small benefits for the huge time spent.
  2. Optimisation is important: Even if we decide technology supports something we value, we must think carefully about how best to use it. Newport argues this principle in relation to return curves. His case is that we should scrutinise not just what we use but how we use them, in recognition of the dwindling returns.
  3. Intentionality is satisfying – Minimalists get significant satisfaction from being more intentional with how they use technology, etc. Newport draws on the example of the Amish community’s approach to technology to demonstrate this intentionality.

Key Idea #3: The digital declutter

  • A gradual approach to the new technologies in question doesn’t work, so instead a rapid transformation is required. Newport suggests this should take the form of a digital declutter.

The digital declutter steps:

  1. Define your technology rules
    • Focused primarily on new technologies, e.g. apps, sites and tools delivered through a computer on mobile screen.
    • Distinguish between ‘critical’ and ‘convenient’.
    • Make a specified set of operating procedures for those technologies that will not be under full abstinence.
  2. Take a 30-day break
    • The goal isn’t just to step away from intrusive technology, but to explore higher-quality activities in their place.
    • The detox provides perspective without trying to reduce usage while still under addictive pull.
    • The aim is to rediscover activities that bring real satisfaction and then only reintroduce technology for a meaningful supporting role.
  3. Reintroduce technology
    • Apply a 3-step technology screen to reintroduce:
      1. Does it serve something you deeply value?
      2. Is it the best way to serve this value?
      3. Constrained by a when and how operating procedure to control use.

Key Idea #4: Solitude deprivation

  • Newport defines solitude per ‘Lead Yourself First’ (UK, US) by Michael Erwin and Raymond Kathledge, as “a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.”
  • The benefits of solitude are wide-ranging: from enhancing creativity to improving self-awareness and increasing closeness to others (because it builds appreciation for connections).
  • Newport suggests some new technologies, particularly smartphones, are cultivating what he calls “solitude deprivation”.
  • He contrasts the emergence of the iPad as a source of continuous distraction from our own thoughts with earlier technologies that provided briefer distractions.
  • The iPhone and wider emergence of smartphones then pushed this to the next level via distraction in the form of the ‘quick glance’ in the slightest hint of boredom.
  • Newport suggests there is evidence of this solitude deprivation in the form of the “iGen”, with those born after 1995 (and therefore exposed to smartphones throughout their teenage years) showing a sharp increase in anxiety-based disorders and suicide rates.
  • The key to overcoming this issue, Newport argues, is to balance periods of solitude with periods of connections.

3 suggested practices to counter solitude deprivation:

  1. Leave your phone at home.
  2. Take long walks (without your phone)
  3. Write letters to yourself – to encourage original thinking.

Key Idea #5: Reclaiming conversation and leisure

  • Our brains have an instinctual process of returning to social thinking in downtime, as evidenced by neurological research.
  • Offline conversations are richer because they require us to process more information, e.g. body language, tone and facial expressions. Online conversations, on the other hand, leave our social brain network underused.
  • His suggested philosophy to “reclaim conversation”: a view where the only form of interaction that counts towards maintaining a relationship is ‘conversation’. ‘Connection’ should only play a supporting role.

3 suggested practices to reclaim conversation:

  1. Don’t click like and don’t connect: Don’t use social media as a tool for “low-quality relationship nudges”.
  2. Consolidate texting: Keep phones in Do Not Disturb mode and only check texts/WhatsApp periodically, instead of constant chatter.
  3. Hold conversation office hours: Block time where you are open for conversation, e.g. on a commute.

According to Newport, we must also cultivate high-quality leisure to fill the void left by our culled digital habits. Newport puts forward three lessons for how we can do this:

  • Lesson #1: Prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption. Newport suggests here a principle put forward by Arnold Bennett (which he calls ‘the Bennett principle’). Its premise is simple: we get more energy from doing something seemingly more strenuous than something less intensive.
  • Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable physical things. Here Newport emphasises the importance of craft as part of a leisure schedule.
  • Lesson #3: Seek activities that provide real-world interactions.

4 suggested practices for reclaiming leisure:

  1. Fix or build something every week.
  2. Schedule your low-quality leisure.
  3. Join something: Connect with fellow citizens via clubs, associations, etc.
  4. Follow leisure plans: Create a seasonal leisure plan (broken out into objectives and habits/behaviours) and a weekly leisure plan based on the longer-term seasonal plan.

Key Idea #6: Ending the ‘foundational’ technology perception

  • The attention economy moved from selling people’s attention through newspapers to selling it directly through mobile social media.
  • But the fragility of attention economics is that it requires technology to be viewed as ‘foundational’. When we start to optimise its use towards what brings us value, this model loses its weight.
  • To counter the forces of attention economics requires something of an attention resistance, and Newport suggests several practices to facilitate that resistance:
    1. Delete social media from your phone. Mobile versions of social media pose a far bigger risk to your time and attention – mainly because of “stickier” features and instant accessibility.
    2. Turn your devices into single-purpose computers. Newport suggests the practice of default blocking certain apps at certain times.
    3. Use social media like a professional. Filter what is useful and have a careful plan on how to use platforms.
    4. Embrace slow media. Breaking news is almost always low-quality information. Wait for quality and limit attention to the best writers.
    5. Dumb down your smartphone. Newport suggests getting a basic phone and getting rid or drastically reducing use of your smartphone.

View from the Blog:

We may only be halfway through January 2020 at the time of writing, but I have a feeling this will be the most important book I read this year. Newport addresses one of the critical questions to emerge in the 21st century: are our smartphones doing us more harm than good?

His answer is generally yes, but what follows isn’t a manifesto against technology. Instead, it’s a well-argued case for a reset. Digital Minimalism calls first for a blank slate and then for a careful rebuild, only using technologies that support what we value.

It’s hard to argue against such an approach. The difficulty for many will instead turns to its implementation. Newport doesn’t provide a paint-by-numbers, step-by-step rulebook for digital minimalism – and perhaps that will put off some. But for those who are already consciously considering the harm of their digital use on productivity and well-being, it provides a range of practices and principles to start recalibrating our relationship with technology.

There is no question that we should all be considering this relationship and its impact on our ability to think independently, socialise healthily and live happily. After all, we’re all human. As Newport puts it in one chapter, “we are not wired to be constantly wired.”

We should all take that reflection seriously.

Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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