Cal Newport On Digital Minimalism

by Anitra Pavlico

My experience is what I agree to attend to. —William James

While you might not break into a neighbor’s house to log onto your Facebook account if your internet were down, a case can be made that many of us are victims of at least a moderate behavioral addiction when it comes to our smartphones. At the playground with our kids, we’re on our phones. At dinner with friends, we’re on our phones. In the middle of the night. At the movies. At a concert. At a funeral. (I was recently at a memorial service for my friend’s mother, and someone’s cell phone rang during my friend’s reminiscence.)

In his recent book Digital Minimalism [1], Cal Newport argues that we need a philosophy for how to approach the use of digital technology. Ad-hoc measures such as disabling notifications and installing apps that monitor our screen time are missing the point. Instead of working backward from an immersion, Newport says, we should examine our lives without technology first and figure out how technology can serve our values and interests in the least intrusive way. Unlike digital maximalists, who try every new app and gadget and try to shoehorn them into their lives, digital minimalists ruthlessly screen each new tool before using it. Newport portrays maximalism as the technology philosophy that “most people deploy by default–a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention.” 

While the iPhone is usually blamed for the current monopolization of our attention, when the iPhone was first released, Steve Jobs referred to it as “the best iPod we’ve ever made!” It was mainly meant to be a way to have both a phone and music in one device instead of two. In the following years, powerful market forces drove the massive attention grab we are currently experiencing. Newport writes that we “added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life.” He argues that we need an overarching approach, a personal philosophy on digital technologies, to counteract the addictiveness of their design. He points out that billions of dollars have been invested to make them more alluring. As Bill Maher said in 2017, “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children.” And to the rest of us, for that matter. We need something stronger than “I should cut back” to counteract what is clearly a carefully orchestrated, cogently executed “philosophy” of sorts from tech industry players: They want to dominate our attention so they can monetize it.

Digital Minimalism reminded me of Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants [2]. Wu places the current domination of our attention by digital media in the larger context of propagandists’, publishers’, and advertisers’ push for our attention over the last century-plus. He writes in his introduction that “the cynic may still ask: But isn’t it simply our choice to live this way? Of course it is . . . But it is essential that we fully understand the deal.” He notes that many are starting to “cut the cord,” unplug, avoid the ads: “We are certainly at an appropriate time to think seriously about what it might mean to reclaim our collective consciousness.” Unlike Newport, though, Wu feels that we “need technologies that help us focus and think rather than distract and diminish,” whereas Newport suggests that we should simply step away from technology to regain our focus and increase our quality of life.

Newport himself is a computer scientist and in Digital Minimalism repeatedly states that he is not against all use of technology. He of course feels that things have gone too far, but his book is not a diatribe against digital tools. Like Wu, though, he emphasizes the market forces and players behind the current state of affairs, and advocates a look at our deeply held values first, and a coherent approach to the use of technology that stems from that. Otherwise, we are prey to Big Tech’s countless lures aimed at maximizing psychological engagement and rewards, and ultimately, at maximizing our time online.

To become a digital minimalist, Newport recommends a month-long “digital declutter” in which all optional technology use is cut out, and after that, a mindful reintroduction of only those tools that enable us to live a good life. I decided to give this a go. Everyone’s declutter will look a little different–it is not a zero-carb diet. So I still listen to music online, and check texts and email once a day or so, and access the news (but by listening to specific clips instead of clicking on numerous articles and absorbing little). For the first few days I missed Reddit, but it got easier. The surprising thing, at the outset, was listing all the ways I use digital media. It took up a whole notebook page. The most difficult part has been calling people or stopping by their offices instead of texting or shooting someone an email. I do feel that I have more time, and that my mind is more calm and clear. I was already off social media, so that has helped.

Newport draws on Aristotle’s prescription for a good life in Nicomachean Ethics, as interpreted by philosopher Kieran Setiya; the good life has to include pursuing activities that provide a “source of inward joy.” Newport suggests exploring activities that represent “high-quality leisure.” His examples are far-flung and may not appeal to everyone, but the spirit behind the suggestions may help readers come up with their own quality leisure activities. For example, Newport cites the “FI,” or financial independence, movement, where adherents live frugally, retire early, and end up with copious amounts of free time to fill with fulfilling hobbies and . . . unpaid, yet more meaningful, work. Newport also points to woodworkers, CrossFit athletes, people who frequent board game cafes, and members of the faith-based fitness group F3 as examples of people making much more of their leisure time than most of us are when we are on our phones. Essentially, he recommends organized activities, socializing in person, getting outside, making or fixing things. When you put your phone away, you are going to experience boredom and restlessness, and you’ll want to put your energies into productive outlets. 

Psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving [3] that “The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. . . . The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” The irony of the efforts of the tech industry to play on our insecurities–socially engineering their products to instill the “fear of missing out” in anyone with a pulse, selling the idea that they are bringing the world together–is that they have led to a situation where people are more lonely than ever, retreating into their phones instead of meeting with friends or family in person. When someone slumps over and stares, frowning, into a small glass slab, this posture says “I’m just like all of you, connecting,” and “Don’t talk to me” at the same time. Children’s social skills and emotional cue-reading skills have deteriorated as technology use has increased. [4] Unscientific observations of my fellow New Yorkers have convinced me that it has had a negative effect on adults’ social skills as well. The increase in awareness of mindfulness practices has uncoincidentally come pari passu with digital technology’s tendency to shatter one moment into infinite shards of attention, distributed among as many distractions. What Newport calls the “attention resistance” may be the best chance we have to safeguard human consciousness and well-being. We need conversation, time with friends and family, a smile, a hug. There’s actually not an app for that.  




[1] Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019)

[2 ] Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

 [3] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper, 1956)

[4] See, e.g., Sean Grover, “How Technology Lowers Emotional Intelligence in Kids,” Psychology Today (July 14, 2017); Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)