Digital Minimaism by Cal Newport book
Posted: October 2, 2020 at 7:00 am

“Checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

Wow – what a concise, powerful message to appear so early in the book (page 9 for those who enjoy keeping track).  These words were spoken by Bill Maher on May 12, 2017 on his HBO show Real Times, and I have to say I was hooked from there on.  There is a saying that “dose makes the poison” which I believe to be true.  It only takes a small amount of something highly toxic to have dire consequences, and at the same time you can also essentially poison yourself with water if you drink too much of it.  Modern technology, most specifically smart phones, can offer great benefit to our lives when used in the proper dosage.  However, the majority of people have blown so far past the “helpful” mark that they can’t even see it anymore, and are now dangerously into “toxic” territory.  They have become “manic information addicts” as Andrew Sullivan puts it.  I was drawn to this book in hopes of gaining some tools to help me find more balance with my own technology use – I do need to use it for my business (including social media), however I often get drawn in and spend unnecessary time on social media and other apps that would be better spent other ways.  I am happy to say the book was able to deliver on what I was looking for – see below.

The author, Cal Newport, is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of six books, including Deep Work (2016), which he describes as being about the underappreciated value of intense focus and how the professional world’s emphasis on distracting communication tools was holding people back from producing their best work.  In his newest work, Digital Minimalism, Newport takes another look at these communication tools, with a large emphasis on smart phones, this time with a lens that focuses on how they affect our personal lives.  This particular aspect resonates with me because I am trying to strike a better balance between using these technologies for work while trying to limit their use outside of work time.  The objective of the book is to offer guidance on how to extract great value from these technologies without losing control – a detailed explanation of what digital minimalism is, why it works, and instructions on how to adopt the philosophy should you decide that it is right for you (which as you can see is right up my alley).  In the introduction of the book Newport explains how the digital world has turned into a behavioral addiction for many – their lives are more controlled by the technology than the other way around.  Disturbingly, he indicates that many of these addictive properties are by design, stating that compulsive use is the foundation for many social media business plans.  He continues,

“No one, of course, signed up for this loss of control.  They downloaded the apps and set up accounts for good reasons, only to discover, with grim irony, that these services were beginning to undermine the very values that made them appealing in the first place: they joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.”

The above is the epitome of “sad, but true,”  Due to COVID-19 it has been a while since I’ve been out to dinner with friends, but thinking back to “those days” I would be hard pressed to remember the last time I went with a group of friends to dinner or a sports bar for a game/fight card and people didn’t spend half the time staring down at their phones.  If I can be honest, I find it frustrating (borderline rude) when you have cleared time on your schedule to spend time with someone only to have them pay more attention to their phone than to you or the activity you are supposed to be doing together.  Who or what is on the other end of that screen that is so important that it can’t wait until we’re done with our plans?  And no, I don’t want to see the random funny video you just found while scrolling through Instagram because it annoys me that you’re even on the app to begin with.  Similarly, to me it is just as bad when someone has to take their phone out and get pictures of every moment of your get together (food pictures anyone?) so they can share it online while they’re still there with you – again, it makes it seem as if the approval / envy of their online network is more important to them than actually spending focused time with the person / people who they are physically with.  At the very least, wait until you are back home before posting the pictures, and for crying out loud don’t post it while you are still with friends and then proceed to continually check for likes/comments on said post while you are still with them.  Social media and communication technologies were supposed to bring us closer together, but it appears to me that they are actually making us more distant and hampering our ability to have meaningful relationships.

Not only are these communication technologies dampening our interpersonal relationships, they are making us sadder and more depressed as individuals.  Newport dives deep into this in the book, with one early example being:

“In addition, as demonstrated during the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, online discussions seems to accelerate people’s shift towards emotionally charged and draining extremes.  The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts.  For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity – a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.”

I found it fascinating how the above parallels with what Trevor Moawad discussed in his book and in my Book Review: It Takes What It Takes by Trevor Moad, about how we as humans evolved to be hardwired for negativity.  I also think this information is timely, because like the quote above this is also an election year – and on pace to be another emotionally charged one just like 2016 (if not more so).  Couple that with the other major issues of the moment such as the pandemic and (at the time of this writing) the major wildfires on the west coast including right here in Portland, and it is a recipe for more anger and draining negativity than I have ever seen, and these digital communication tools only perpetuate that.

One of my favorite analogies from the book is referring to your phone as a slot machine.  This reference is from Tristan Harris (a former start-up founder and Google engineer), who explains,

“Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?’  There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used [by technology companies] to get you using the product for as long as possible … They [the app developers} are programming people.  There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral.  And it’s up to us to choose how we use it.  That’s just not true.  It’s not neutral.  They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time.  Because that’s how they make their money.”

There is a term used in the book that is worth bringing up and has relevance to the slot machine analogy above, and that is “intermittent positive reinforcement.”  Newport references a study from the 1970’s by Michael Zeiler that he calls the “pecking pigeon experiments.”  Zeiler’s studies determined that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern.  Apparently something about the unpredictability releases more dopamine compared to predictable scenarios, and dopamine is strongly tied to our sense of craving.  It is then pointed out that “this same basic behavior is replicated by the feedback buttons that have accompanied most social media posts since Facebook introduced the ‘Like’ icon in 2009.”  So every time you open your phone, you’re playing the slot machine for how many likes (or hearts, or comments) you’re going to have received on your last post.  Speaking of dopamine, in the book Sean Parker (the founding president of Facebook) was quoted as saying in 2017,

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever.”

Soon after this another eye-opening term is introduced that I had not previously heard: the attention economy.  These are companies who are in the business of getting and keeping our attention.  Because most of these apps are free to use, that means the revenues come primarily from advertising – what this essentially means is that we are the product.  Our attention is the product that is being sold.  The more of our attention they get, the more they can sell, and the higher their profits.  So, it should come as no surprise that their goal is to get people addicted to their apps, because that boosts the bottom line.  Newport acknowledges that “addiction” can be a scary word, and can have several definitions depending on context.  The one he offers in the book is this:

“Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.”

I think a key part to the discussion is identifying “detrimental consequences” – a few were already outlined above, and in the interest of brevity I’ll keep it to just one more that I found interesting and worth sharing.

Newport suggests that our brains evolved to crave rich social interaction, and that serious issues arise when we displace this interaction with digital pings.  He begins this explanation by referencing a handful of studies that showed there are a particular set of regions in the brain that consistently activate when you are not attempting to do a cognitive task, and they consistently deactivate once you focus your attention on something specific.  It is speculated that this region tends to focus on a small number of targets: thoughts about other people, yourself, or both.  He calls this “social cognition.” Further studies indicated that these regions of the brain are virtually identical to those that light up during specific social cognition experiments.  Newport concludes that when given downtime, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.  Interestingly, he continues that the loss of social connection turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain – which he suggests may explain why the death of a family member or a break up can cause so much distress.  Next, he mentions an experiment that discovered that over-the-counter painkillers reduced social pain – it was not discussed if there has been an increase in painkiller use and/or addiction since the prominence of social media, but it does not seem like a big stretch to assume that is the case.

Circling back – how does this all tie into social media use and digital minimalism?  Newport suggests that these intricate brain networks evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich face-to-face encounters.  The past two decades have seen a rapid change in how we interact, with the emphasis now being on digital communications that encourage interaction through short text messages and approval clicks / likes that are, according to Newport, “orders of magnitude less information laden than we have evolved to expect.”  He parallels how modern innovations of highly processed foods have led to a global health crisis, modern digital communication tools are leading to equally worrisome problems.

Newport continues by referencing a handful of studies showing both positive and negative effects of social media use, eventually drawing the conclusion that,

“The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.  As the negative studies imply, the more you use social media, the less time you tend to devote to offline interaction, and therefore the worse this value-deficit becomes – leaving the heaviest social media users much more likely to be lonely and miserable.  The small boosts you receive from posting on a friend’s wall or liking their latest Instagram photo can’t come close to compensating for the large loss experienced by no longer spending real-world time with that same friend.”

We have actually had a house rule for a long time at Industrial Strength that phones / devices must stay away during class, because in spite of ample opportunity provided by the class setting for real-work socializing we have seen that given the opportunity people will default to being on their phone.  Shortly after the statement above, Newport then quotes Sherry Turkle, a leading researcher on the subjective experience of technology.  Turkle says,

“Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanizing – thing we do.  Fully present to one another, we learn to listen.  It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy.  It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”

The good news is that not all technology needs to be abandoned, just used more thoughtfully.  Newport outlines a formula to help you improve your relationship with technology, and help you organize your life in a way that technology is used to enhance it, rather than have you be chained to it and controlled by it (which remember was my goal to begin with).  There are many great suggestions in the book and I will leave it to you to read through it and find the options that work for you, but a few simple ones to consider include embracing solitude (many great mental health benefits he discussed), going for walks, and picking up a new craft or hobby that gets you off your phone (jiu jitsu anyone)?

In conclusion, I highly recommend the book and I think it will open your eyes to a lot of ways that your phone is controlling you rather than the other way around.  That said, there are many great suggestions on how to turn the tables and take back control of your life and your happiness.  I’ll leave you with Newport’s definition of the title of the book:

Digital Minimalism – A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

-Tony Gracia


Edit – the evening after I finished writing this review, my wife and I watched “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which I hadn’t even known existed until we sat in front of the TV.  The documentary film brings to light a lot of the negative aspects discussed above and interviews a lot of the people quoted in the book.  The documentary, however, came off as more one-sided (anti-social media) than the book, which is more about finding the right ways to use these tools in ways and amounts that are valuable to you.  The documentary was enjoyable, however, in my opinion it is not a replacement for Newport’s book.

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