Review: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

It’s almost cliché at this point to comment on our overuse of digital media. In 1985, Neil Postman was lamenting our pre-internet electronic over-indulgences in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Television was an inert medium, argued Postman, overwhelming our culture with irrelevant, incoherent, and impotent infotainment.

In 1996, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest imagined a near future North America trapped in an endless cycle of entertainment, waste, and addiction. Wallace imagines a film so entertaining that people are literally unable to stop watching it, eventually dying with their eyes glued to the screen and their drooling jaws agape.

And then in our world, a little over a decade later, we got smartphones.

One can’t help but suspect that there is something deeply rotten about our digital lives. At what feels like the tail-end of the Web 2.0 social media arc, many are reflecting on their own digital habits with a renewed self-criticism. I myself am one of those people. I was happy to discover Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism (2018), a deeply practical work aimed at offering concrete solutions to our 21st century digital problems. In the introduction, he argues that the only way to regain autonomy in our ever-connected age is to develop

a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else. (p.XVI)

Digital Minimalism is Newport’s answer to this problem. Over the course of seven chapters, Newport points out the ways in which digital media is harming us, puts forward a definition of the digital minimalist philosophy, and offers practical advice for readers who want to put digital minimalism into practice.

Newport’s first recommendation is to perform a digital declutter’, in which you, over the course of 30 days, abstain from all optional’ technologies and explore new activities and behaviours. What counts as optional is, admittedly, a little fuzzy, but readers are encouraged to think honestly about which technologies they really need in their lives. After the 30 days are up, you reintroduce technologies according to a minimalist technology screen. If a given piece of tech doesn’t serve something you deeply value, ditch it.

Some other pieces of advice include:

  • Leave your phone at home
  • Take long walks
  • Write often
  • Cultivate high-quality leisure time by engaging in active rather than passive pursuits
  • Engage in structured, real-world social interactions

They’re tried-and-true recommendations that most sensitive souls are likely to have prescribed to themselves at one point or another, likely after a wasted day of binging video games or YouTube videos. But Newport is thoroughly convincing, arguing with admirable clarity and even-handedness. You can almost feel your muscles relaxing as you read.

Given the book’s emphasis on self-improvement, some personal notes feel appropriate here. Before reading Digital Minimalism, I was already somewhat of a half-baked digital minimalist. I have a minimalist theme installed on my phone that’s designed to be as least distracting as possible. I don’t have a Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram. I’ve been slowly weaning myself off of my most harmful digital habits over the course of the last few years. But reading Newport’s work made me realize the ways in which I could further refine and improve my digital life.

I’ve since tightened the restrictions on app and site blockers that I use. I used to spend half and hour to 45 minutes in the morning mindlessly browsing the internet before earnestly starting the work day. Not anymore. I’m also much more aware of my need for solitude. One of my favourite takeaways from the book is the concept of solitude deprivation, defined by Newport as a state in which you spend close to zero time alone and free of input from other minds. There’s no need to listen to a podcast every time you do the dishes. It’s okay to be alone with your thoughts.

Digital Minimalism is essential reading for anyone serious about thinking critically about their digital habits and making real changes in their lives to re-assert their autonomy in the face of the never-ending onslaught of digital distractions.

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