Digital Minimalism [Cal Newport]

Source: National Library Board Singapore [ebook]

Date Started: 21 July 2019

Date Completed: 21 July 2019

Goodreads link.


  • I have quite a lot to write about what is a very short self-help book. Will wonders never cease? So let’s get to it.
  • There are two frustrations here: the first reflects on the author, and the second reflects on me.
  • My problem with Cal Newport is that even though I agree with most of what he’s saying, he is using the “Savannah dwelling humans have not evolved for this!” argument. Maybe the argument is true. But I don’t think that it has been proven for anything yet; and I am even more suspicious of it coming from someone who isn’t a biologist.
  • The second frustration isn’t with the book but with myself. I have done most of what the book recommends in terms of cutting out digital distractions. I’ve been off Twitter for a year. I check Facebook and Instagram only once a month. I’ve never had the FB app on my phone. But despite all these good practices, I’m still vulnerable to the behavioural addictions which Newport describes. The most recent addiction, which took over as I phased out Twitter, is reddit. I’ve had some success there, cutting out the front page and only visiting specific subreddits, but I still end up there whenever I’m bored, hoping for new posts. And imgur is always there and waiting.
  • Newport does say that just quitting isn’t good enough and that you need to have a plan in mind for what you will do in the absence of social media / notification distractions. The trouble is that both creating the plan and following those activities require the sort of focus and discipline which social media addiction destroys.
  • Which is not to say that finding or doing the new things is a lost cause; it just takes effort and once you get rolling, it becomes easier to stick with it. Coincidentally, I had come across the ‘Running Baboon’ quote from Bojack Horseman a week before reading Newport’s book. It seems to fit the struggle to replace social media. It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you got to do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.
  • Out of the three principles of minimalism that Newport listed, the one I cheered for the most was #3- “Intentionality is satisfying.” Which is a restatement, I think, of his point about autonomy.
  • His subchapter about how the Amish are not actually anti-technology; but have a massive vetting system for which technology they will allow, and under which circumstances; was fascinating. Likewise, the slightly less extreme decision making process practiced by the non-Amish Mennonites. Contrary to Weird Al Yankovic, the Amish do pay their phone bills.
  • The bit about Amish Rumspringa – allowing youngsters to go into the wider world and choose for themselves whether they want that or the Amish lifestyle – reminded me of the initally throaway, later plot point – so a Chekhov’s gun? – bit in Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan about the reservations for past cultures.
  • The point about solitude being not about not having other people around; but not letting other minds intrude into yours was quite poetic and something I want to remember.
  • Newport makes a point about the iPod being the first piece of technology which turned the lack of solitude into a default state rather than something taken up intermittently. I am not sure if this is valid or hyperbole.
  • Newport’s advice to take long walks, without a smartphone easily at hand, made me almost cry in frustration. I can take long walks when I’m in Singapore, and I’m willing to do it without a smartphone (or at least with the smartphone in a bag). But taking long walks in Chennai or Delhi is an exercise in pain and suffering; because the street environment there will simply not allow for solitude; as you’ll always have to be on the lookout for mad drivers and obstacles.
  • Newport recommends journaling, calling it “writing letters to yourself.” I’m doing that. I think the challenge is more to read your old letters to yourself.
  • The chapter titled “Don’t Click Like” has a lot to unpack, which I’ll cover in the next few points.
  • Newport points out that clicking ‘like’ is a very low-information method of communication, which I agree with. He ignores the fact that Facebook will do all kinds of algorithmic nonsense with every like. The leap he then takes is to visit our old friend from Why Buddhism is True, the human brain’s default state network. Newport says that since humans are wired to respond to social cues, tone of voice, and body language, restricting our interaction to social media is a massive opportunity cost considering we could be deriving much more psychological benefit from having phone and in-person conversations. I feel this is… again, quite possibly true, but up for debate.
  • The reason I’m a little iffy about this is that a) I’d like an actual biologist or neuroscientist or psychologist to weigh in on it, not a computer scientist; and b) just because we’re wired for something doesn’t mean that it’s always in our best interests to do it – which is what Why Buddhism is True kept on emphasising.
  • The analogy I’m drawing here is to the Pratchett / Harari / Chambers treatment of narrative. Pratchett says that we are creatures of narrative, so the narrative we adopt shapes reality. Harari says that we are vulnerable to narrative, so we should reject all narratives. Chambers falls in between, saying that we should be selective about our narratives. (I’m overgeneralising their positions, but maybe it’s fair to say that these are the positions which their fanboys adopt.) Same premise, three different conclusions. Newport seems to be a little too eager to advocate for neurological determinism – we are wired for this, so we must continue this.
  • This chapter suggests a practice which I haven’t adopted yet – conversation office hours, a block of time devoted to talking to people in person or over phone. Newport does allow that phoning is more anxiogenic than texting, but suggests that the dedicated block of time reduces the anxiety for those who know it and are wondering when they should call.
  • The next chapter mentions the Bennett principle, that continuous hard activity is energising, not exhausting. So far, I’ve thought of this in terms of good exhaustion – the kind which comes from a day of activity; and bad exhaustion – the kind which comes from a day sitting at a desk or in the backseat of a car.
  • Interestingly, this chapter also cites the FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) community, another subculture which I’ve been observing with some interest.
  • The next practice which I haven’t adopted yet, much to my shame, is becoming handy around the house and fixing appliances or making furniture.
  • The suggestion on having social activities that involve doing something like board games or sports is again something which I’d like to implement, but which has been badly lacking in my life in Singapore and Chennai. Quizzing, while not the perfect activity, is fortunately still present.
  • The whole book also reminds me of something else I’ve been thinking which is that the optimistic promise of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail has been lost. In 2006, Anderson was excitedly talking about how the internet had unleashed our cognitive surplus to allow us to make user generated content of new and fantastic quality. In 2019, it seems that the bulk of our cognitive surplus is however going towards creating a firehose of memes, shitposts, and Twitter snark; for which it’s probably safe to behave the behavioural addiction potential of social media. Deep sigh.



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