The basic premise of this book, as might be expected, builds on notions of minimalist living. It builds on Newport’s excellent previous book “Deep Work”, and poses the questions “How much digital do you really need?” and “How might you live more intentionally with a more deliberate digital presence?”
This is not something that’s just “nice to have”, or that we might want to think of reintroducing some balance to our lives. It’s acknowledging that the digital world has been deliberately designed to enrapture our attention, to hijack our brain in an unhealthy way. He describes it as a “lopsided arms race”, where the digital platforms have access to so much more money and resources than their users, and deploy these resources to slip behind our guard. We need to respond deliberately and carefully.
The example of the Amish approach to technology is telling. Contrary to popular belief, the Amish people do not reject technology out of hand. Instead, they take a deeply suspicious view of new technology and carefully assess the impact of that technology on their community and its values. This is what most of us never did with social media and all the “convenience” that our digital life brings. The anxiety that shadows our digital life is the consequence, and we need to become aware and respond. Newport proposes a number of approaches that might be taken, a number of ways to think about technology.
It’s not Luddite, nor does it come down on simple solutions. Newport acknowledges the role of our digital lives, and that everybody has a different threshold for what is “needed”. The closest he comes to a prescription is his process for determining what is needed - the one month digital detox. He advocates taking a month off any optional technologies, and then gradually reintroducing what is actually missed, what is necessary.
Newport proposes three principles for digital minimalism:
1. Clutter is costly. Just going after every new shiny technology in case you might miss some vague benefit has costs. And they are both largely invisible and significant.
2. Optimisation is important. In letting a new technology into your life, it’s important to think about how that technology will be used
3. Intentionality is satisfying. The broad benefit of being intentional in life in general is deeply meaningful. It’s about individual agency.
Having established the benefits of digital minimalism, and the principles upon which it is built, Newport then describes a number of practices that help heal the human brain. These are subtle and wonderful. They are worth spelling out here.
1. Spend time alone. The importance of solitude cannot be understated. Solitude is where the brain heals. The always on, always connected society we live in creates a deficit of solitude, and we are unwell as a result. The remedies are simple and old-fashioned. Leave your phone at home. Go for long walks. Write letters to yourself.
2. Don’t click “like”. Social media drives dissatisfaction. The unpredictability of whether a social media post will attract attention is random and driven by an algorithm as much as it is by the content. We are wired for connection, but likes are shallow. Conversation is not. So rather than pursue “connection”, pursue “conversation”. High bandwidth, deep conversation is much, much different to the tiny dopamine hits of likes, comments and so on. And one of the more interesting remedies is to let people know of “conversation office hours” - times when you are always accessible for a phone call. Because the work in setting up a call is so difficult that it makes the call unlikely. Just set a time, every day, when you’re available to talk, and that problem disappears.
3. Reclaim leisure. And by leisure, Newport means active, demanding activity rather than the passive consumption encouraged by digital forces. Pursuing a craft. Learning a physical skill. Spending time face to face with people. Create seasonal leisure plans. The latter is reflected in the Hedonic Calendaring that is important for initiating Flow - it matters to schedule in leisure because otherwise our attention gets drawn into the vortex of nothingness that translates into endless scrolling of newsfeeds or Youtube or Instagram or whatever fits your need. Schedule in leisure and you will actually take it.
4. Join the attention resistance. Understand what you want from the various platforms you use, and be surgical in this use. Suggestions include removing social media from your phone (something I’ve done, and find a wonderful liberation). Embracing “slow media”, such as newspapers and magazines and a handful of high quality websites or authors (I’d add books to this list). Dumb down your smartphone with less and less apps.
In short, this is a wonderfully practical book that you’ll probably return to again and again once you realise just how much control you have ceded over your own life. It doesn’t have to be that way. The anxiety from wondering where all the likes are. The persistent itch to update your feed. Your brain being dumbed down by all of these compulsions. It doesn’t have to be that way.
It remains possible to reap the benefits of the internet, even of social media, without stripping out our humanity for the surveillance capitalists. Be intentional. Decide, based on your values, what you want to participate in and how. Resist the draw of the digital current, because it will sweep you away if you’re not careful.
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