Book Review: Digital Minimalism

7 minute read

Every once in a while, I run into an article or book or website that eerily matches what I’ve been thinking about, and sometimes even writing about, lately. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (published in 2019, so I’m late to the show) is one of these books. The first part of the book could be not unreasonably characterized as Control-Alt-Backspace’s manifesto in book form, and I’ve written about quite a few of the ideas in the book here before. For instance, all four of the recommendations in my post How to Slow Down find a prominent place in the book.

(Amusingly, Newport himself, in unrelated writings, offers a useful name for thinking about this simultaneity of ideas: the adjacent possible consists of the set of discoveries or thoughts that a field of inquiry is primed to yield at a particular moment, given the state of the art and current events. Because of this global state, multiple people are considerably more likely than you would expect to come up with similar ideas at any given time, without reference to the other.)

If you like Control-Alt-Backspace, especially the simplicity and design focuses, or you’re just looking for a way to reclaim your time and attention from the digital distractions that pervade today’s world, I highly recommend this book. Some other reviewers have complained that it provides few new ideas, but I think that’s missing the point. I’m a big fan of Newport not because much of his work has given me entirely new insights, but because he invariably organizes ideas I am more or less familiar with in a comprehensible and coherent manner; I end up going, “Wow, that makes so much sense!” You might have encountered or even made up all the ideas, but if you can’t figure out how to connect them, they won’t do you much good. (This is more or less the foundational principle of the Zettelkasten, about which I hope to write more here sooner or later: it lets you commit your ideas into a format that supports finding connections between them later.)

Perhaps the most important insight of the book is that people tend to treat new technology as inherently good and useful, and that this is a foolish and even nonsensical way to think about it. I discussed this a couple of weeks ago in “Everything’s Broken, Everything’s Too Complicated”:

In today’s tech-first political and social climate, if something becomes possible and has a vague air of coolness, it will rapidly not just be done but become required.

What I wrote there is only half the story, though. Some technologies really are more or less required for a normal life nowadays, like electric lighting or email, and some things are so much more convenient that it’s usually silly not to adopt them, like cell phones (not necessarily smartphones) or ordering hard-to-find items on Amazon rather than driving around to six stores looking for them during a pandemic. But we have a tendency to accept as basic necessities things that aren’t in fact important at all, like social media or constant access to text messages.

In the case of social media, Newport explores in detail how this perception of necessity benefits social media companies, how they have actively worked to create it, and how it’s more or less a zero-sum game: because they earn money only by selling your attention to advertisers, they benefit from making their products addictive and stealing your time. Meanwhile, you may actually get almost nothing out of social media. Most popular media are designed carefully with extensive reference to human psychology, such that you think you get significant benefits out of even the most pointless activities. But if you stop to tally up what you gain from them in comparison to the time and attention you lose, they, or at least some parts of them, may turn out to be obvious drains on our life. Further, because they are adopted over time, both on a societal and individual level, at the beginning they seem like harmless diversions. It’s only later that they turn into monstrous time sinks, once everyone has come to accept them as a part of life.

This is not an anti-technology approach to life. It is merely one that applies a sober cost-benefit analysis to technology – just like you would do when making a large purchase or deciding where to live or what job to take – and refuses to consider anything “required” or obviously beneficial. As Newport writes in the conclusion:

As a computer scientist, I make a living helping to advance the cutting edge of the digital world. Like many in my field, I’m enthralled by the possibilities of our techno-future. But I’m also convinced that we cannot unlock this potential until we put in the effort required to take control of our own digital lives – to confidently decide for ourselves what tools we want to use, for what reasons, and under what conditions. This isn’t reactionary, it’s common sense.

This approach is digital minimalism: using any given technology only when you get more out of it than you put in, and taking the time to decide exactly how you should use it for maximum benefit (for instance, you don’t want to use Facebook to spend three hours a day looking at political posts that infuriate you, while you might well want to use it for fifteen minutes a week, in a carefully controlled way, to see what your friends are up to).

Digital minimalism is also not a blanket condemnation of any particular technology. Most technologies exist because they were useful to someone, and even the ones that most easily become toxic can be used to good effect if used carefully by people they jibe well with. The goal of minimalism is to pick out what things most improve your life, and then go from there. To take a silly example with little chance of being controversial, I don’t own a microwave oven and haven’t for many years. I live in a 500-square-foot apartment and have severely limited counter space, and I find that having an Instant Pot and a blender in the space a microwave would take up is much more useful to me. Key word, to me; if you eat a lot of food that’s most easily prepared in the microwave, this would likely be a poor choice for you. I have nothing against microwaves; most people find them useful, and indeed if my kitchen was larger I’m sure I would have one myself. But for me, at this moment, the cost exceeds the benefit.

After explaining digital minimalism in several chapters and discussing how you can figure out what technologies are truly valuable for you by briefly giving up most of them, Newport gives over a hundred pages of useful suggestions on how you can replace the time spent using and functionality of technologies that turned out to have a negative value proposition for you. This part got a bit long for my taste, but there were a handful of fantastic suggestions I’d never heard before, and if you’re looking for ideas, you’ll definitely find them here.

I was somewhat disappointed to find no discussion of the ways that technology can frustrate us, beyond the ways that it can trick us into thinking we enjoy it; see A Complete Definition of Badness and Likable Software for my take on these. This might have been outside the scope of the book, but to me it seems like another good reason to stay minimal, and an important factor in calculating the cost-benefit ratio of a tool, and unfortunately technology doesn’t seem to be getting much better in this regard!

All in all, unless you think your relationship with technology is already as good as it could be, I’d say you will likely benefit somehow from reading this book. The proposed philosophy of digital minimalism is both subversive in how different it is from the prevailing wisdom of digital culture and brilliantly common-sense. Even if you don’t like Newport’s approach to technology, it’s worth engaging with his argument.