Chances are you are probably reading this very article on your phone. But if Cal Newport’s predictions are correct, you may be doing less of that in the future. The professor of computer science at Georgetown has a new book out on February 5th called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and it could be the beginning of a digital revolution.
What is so groundbreaking about it? Newport posits that our days of constant scrolling out of boredom — and addiction — are limited. That is, if we find it in ourselves to reject what he refers to as “technology maximalism” in favor of “digital minimalism.” His idea is that technology makes life more convenient to a certain point; after that, it actually takes away from the quality of our lives — and it’s up to the individual to assess whether it takes away more than it adds on the whole.
If you find that social media and internet browsing is doing more harm than good, then you can (and should) try out his method of a 30-day digital detox. Over that period of time, Newport suggests that we can form entirely new, and much more positive, digital habits. No, you won’t have to give up email or Slack, or anything else you actually need to do your job and manage your life — but you will be going cold turkey on all of the extras, like Facebook and Twitter.
As Newport explained to GQ, “Most people value their social life, and connection, and community. When people take their energy, and, in a really focused manner, say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to connect with my family, my close friends, and have good standing in my community through these high-energy, real world, analog type interactions and commitment’ — people who do that frequently feel a much stronger value and sense of social connection than someone who is dissipating that energy to try to maintain one of these very large, weakly-connected, arbitrary social media friend contact groups [with] lots of comments, and Happy Birthday!’s, and likes.”
There are professional benefits to giving up tech as well: “If you train your brain, ‘I always have to have stimuli. I can’t be bored for a moment,’ you’re gonna have both professional and social ramifications,” Newport said. “Professionally, it makes it very difficult to concentrate without distraction. I wrote a whole book about this called Deep Work that makes us log arguments for why it’s really valuable in our current economy to be able to focus very intensely. So to train yourself out of your ability to do that is sort of like economic self-sabotage.”
How soon does Newport think it will take for digital minimalism to take hold? “I’m convinced that within a five-year window, the culture’s gonna shift on young people and smartphones,” he argued. “You’re gonna look at allowing a 13-year-old to have a smartphone the same way that you would look at allowing your 13-year-old to smoke a cigarette. … It’s just like with smoking, where we started by making it illegal for people under 18. That was the beginning of, ‘Well, wait a second, if it’s so dangerous for them, why am I doing it so much?'”
If the comparison to cigarettes isn’t motivating enough, Newport also finds an analogy between tech overuse and drug use. “You get actual lasting changes to your brain chemistry,” he said. “Now you have a brain that needs stimuli just to get back up to normal. Just like the drug addict: after a while it takes more and more drugs just get back to normal.”
Asked how he handles social media FOMO (the fear of missing out on that funny tweet, on writing a comment on your friend’s Facebook page, and so on), Newport had something both relatable and inspiring to say: “I don’t fear missing out. I fear not giving enough attention to the things that I already know for sure are important.”
As someone with an active Twitter account would tweet: mic drop.
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