Digital Minimalism

A summary of the popular book by Cal Newport on managing intrusive technology.

About the Book

As a heavy user of computer technology for over a decade, I’ll be the first defend its benefits. My familiarity with the internet is responsible for a significant chunk of my knowledge and much of my critical thinking abilities. Through personalities like Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer, it also played a big part in me developing an intense interest in science and eventually pursuing a career in it.

When something is so useful, you tend to be slow to notice its downsides. In 2016, I started to feel that my technology use was filling large chunks of my time with un-productive habits, preventing me from doing many of the cool things that the internet told me was possible. I often found myself doom scrolling on websites like Facebook, Instagram or reddit at the end of my workday and during weekends. My habit of mindless browsing was taking away time that I could be putting into developing new skills that I wanted to develop. In other words, I was starting to feel like I was losing control over my time.

I found Digital Minimalism when I was searching for methods that would help me stay on task when I was using tech. The book contains very practical advice on how to change habits surrounding technology usage and halped me free up large chunks of my time for pursuits that I find more satisfying.

If you’re the kind of person that finds themselves deep in a reddit thread about annoying habits of co-workers ten minutes after opening up your laptop for responding to an email, this book might help. For me, the most useful feature of the book is how it builds a coherent theory of how humans interact with technology. Newport takes many different negative aspects of unstructured technology use, and brings it together under one theoretical framework and uses this framework to dispense specific advice about how to make things better.


Humans are Biologically Wired in Certain Ways

The mentions three key things that human brains have evolved to find satisfaction in.

  1. Real-World Social Interactions: Interacting with people in the real world involves processing a dense, “high-bandwidth” stream of information that engages multiple senses. Newport suggests that as a social species, humans have evolved to find satisfaction in such high-bandwidth social interactions.
  2. Occasional Solitude: Newport cites scientific studies to build the case that the brain does important types of reflective thinking when you are alone and that this might be very important to develop as a person. He also gives some case studies of famous people who have found value in developing new ideas for their work in solitude.
  3. Building Physical Things: As a species that evolved to use tools, Newport argues that humans are wired to find satisfaction in seeing physical consequences of our efforts.

Modern Tech Optimizes for Capturing and Holding Human Attention

The book highlights the fact that many technologies such as mobile apps and social media websites are precisely engineered to capture and maintain as much of our attention as possible. Since the users' attention is the source of revenue for many apps and websites, it is natural for them to optimize themselves for how much attention they can capture.

  1. Social Interactions: Social media captures your attention by providing social approval (which the brain craves) but through low bandwidth channels such as “likes” or “upvotes”. The book argues that these signals of social approval keep our brains engaged in the app, leaving us with less time for real social interactions but leave us dissatisified because of their low bandwidth nature.

  2. Solitude: Constantly being “plugged-in” into these apps and websites prevents our brains from getting solitude from time to time, depriving it of time to reflect. This could have negative effects such as increasing anxiety and less time for developing creative ideas.

  3. Physical Hobbies: Time spent using tech also necessarily means less time for developing hobbies that involve building physical things. Newport argues that activities like programming or building websites don’t quite satisfy our brains in the same way as building a fence or a house.

The Book’s Recommendation

To mitigate these negative affects of technology, the book recommends adopting a philosophy of technology use that guides which technologies to adopt and which to avoid. This requires first getting a good idea of your values and goals in life and only adopting the use of technologies that align with your values and goals.

The book warns that one-off hacks like switching to a smart-phone or blocking time-wasting websites won’t work on their own without an over-arching philosophy.

Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport’s calls his preferred philosophy of technology use Digital Minimalism. Digital minimalism starts with a one month technology detox during which you cut out all non-essential technology from your life. The month is used to evaluate whether any of the tech you used to use actually aligned with your goals and values.

The book also goes one step further and uses what science knows about human nature to recommend some specific values that may be useful to adopt when dealing with technology.

  1. Prioritize Real-World Social Interaction: Use technology to increase the amount of time that you spend on face-to-face interactions with people.
  2. Schedule Solitude: Use the time that may be gained from cutting out distracting tech, spend more time on your own and let your brain get a healthy amount of time to reflect quietly on things.
  3. Physical Hobbies: Consider adopting hobbies that involve creating and shaping material with the hands.

Verify Before Trusting

Since the source of income for much of the tech that we use is our attention, it will naturally optimize for capturing and holding our attention for as long as possible even if it is not in our interest. So the book recommends treating all new tech first with suspcion and letting the tech into our lives only after we have determined that it aligns with our goals and values. Periodically evaluating tech that you’ve already let in to make sure that its behaviour has not changed may also be a good idea.

Closing Thoughts

I think that the book gets right the idea that we need a philosophy of technology use so that it does not prevent us from achieving our goals. However, I think that some of the recommended values may be specific to the author. In particular, I find that writing code or making PCBs often scratch my creative itch just fine. In fact, I have an aversion to sports or things that make me feel physically winded or sweaty. I think that the most valuable takeaway from the book is that it’s a good idea to make sure that the technology and tools that you use align with your values and goals. What those values and goals should be is up to you.

Ashwin Narayan
Ashwin Narayan
PhD Student | Guitarist | Coffee Enthusiast

I am a PhD student at the National University of Singapore working with the Biorobotics research group

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