For a computer scientist and best-selling author, Cal Newport keeps a low profile on the internet. “You won’t find him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram,” says the bio on the flap of his recent book, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better With Less Technology. This “outsider status”, as Newport calls it, hasn’t stopped him from giving advice to those addicted to social media. “By approaching our tech culture from a fresh perspective, I’m perhaps better able to distinguish assumption from truth…meaningful use from manipulation,” he writes. His conviction isn’t misplaced. If you are jaded with ennui induced by social media, or suffocated by the stranglehold of the internet, you are likely to come away from this book armed with compelling arguments and practical tips to cut yourself from the iron grip of the World Wide Web.
In his previous book, Deep Work (2016), Newport charted ways of focusing our attention in an era of ceaseless distractions. Taking the idea forward, he homes in on a specific component in his latest work—the digital media conglomerate, made up of the unholy trinity of the internet, social media and smartphones—and the strategies its users can employ to resist its all-pervasive influence. Newport minces no words about the pernicious business model followed by social media outlets like Facebook, where time spent by users equals revenue. “You can’t…build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hours every day using a service like Facebook,” he writes, highlighting the exploitative premise of such services.
The key to reclaiming our attention, along with our life, time and money, is in becoming a digital minimalist, Newport says, following a few core principles that may resonate with followers of the KonMari Method, introduced by Japanese tidiness expert Marie Kondo. Digital minimalism, Newport argues, is as much a practice that can actively improve the quality of life as “a philosophy of technology use”. Yet, while asking people to abjure the compulsive pull of technology, Newport is careful not to come across as a technophobe. His conception of digital minimalism is based on the conscious and productive use of technology as a means to enhance our everyday experiences, one that facilitates “structured social interactions” instead of isolating us from the physical world. “Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value,” Newport writes, “not as sources of value themselves.”
“Value” is the operative word here. Kondo invokes a more sentimental cognate of it when she asks her clients to hold on to only those objects that “spark joy”.
Newport’s advice is never offered in absolute terms. If your work depends on using social media, or surfing the internet, he doesn’t ask you to get a new job, but rather build pockets of “high quality leisure” into your daily routine that don’t involve reaching out for the nearest available screen. Creating space for solitary reflection, undisturbed by society or technology, ranks high on his list of such immersive pursuits.
Newport also doesn’t deny that the human brain is wired to seek out company. But electronic screens, he argues, don’t teach us, or improve, our social skills. A like, comment or retweet allows us to build a superficial connection at best, as opposed to the gratification that comes from a conversation in the real world. Instead of lazy online interactions, he demands that we make the effort to at least get on a Skype call and have a face-to-face interaction in real time. Instead of trawling YouTube for mindless stimulation, Newport suggests we pick up a new skill by watching a tutorial—a DIY video to build something or to play a song on the guitar. Instead of passively binge-watching shows on video-streaming platforms, he urges us to indulge in such consumption only with friends and families. Less technology, as well as its intelligent use, can enrich our lives more than we expect.