jml's notebook

Reading: Digital Minimalism

I'm of two minds about Cal Newport's writing.

One part of me strongly agrees with his ideas, and very much wants to put his suggestions into practice. This way especially the case with Deep Work.

Another part understands that he really is speaking to a very narrow group of people as if they were universal.

Digital Minimalism is Newport's attempt to answer the question: why are so many people so uncomfortable about their relationship with their smartphone, and what can be done about it? It's based on his own thinking and from talking to lots of other people.

The core premise is that smartphones, the apps on them, and social media in particular are largely built by advertising companies designed to keep you checking again and again. I hope this is not controversial.

Then, Newport asserts that this is bad for people. That we need boredom, solitude, and genuine face-to-face interactions not only to maintain our basic mental health, but also to flourish. In particular, you can't do "deep work" if you are constantly context switching. Again, I hope this is widely accepted.

The rest of the book is Newport's interaction with various "digital minimalists", and outlines a way to find your own minimalism.

The main gist is not that minimalists necessarily abstain from certain kinds of technology, but rather that they understand that each new technology has costs as well as benefits. They think about why they use a certain technology and then decide how they will use it in line with that purpose.

For example, many writers will use Twitter to stay in touch with the world and to, umm, promote their brand. However, a digital minimalist writer might only do this in the afternoon after they have spent the morning actually writing on a device that doesn't have access to Twitter at all.

For me, none of this seemed particularly interesting or novel, even within Newport's corpus. It's been ages since I've removed social media apps from my phone (largely inspired by Deep Work!), and at the start of the year I removed "any app I have to check", as well as all browsers. Now, there's nothing particularly entertaining on my phone, and I'm thus compelled to find other solutions to momentary boredom.

Not having a web browser means that I often have to wait until I'm home to look something interesting up. When I'm home, I'm just as likely to consult my physical reference books as to open up my laptop to find a web browser. This has brought back an unexpected pleasure from my childhood.

I don't want to take the high road on this. Everyone's different, and I do enough stupid things with my time and technology that I don't want to hold myself up as a model to emulate. That said, this works for me.