Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

I finished “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport last weekend. I assumed, from the title, the book would just be this:

repeated for 300 or so pages. It wasn’t! The 2016 election and Twitter comes up at least a few times, but the book is more about forming good habits to replace digital distractions. My favorite quote from the book:

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types or rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia.

The book resonates with my belief that the value of the internet is fundamentally found in two things:

  • As a repository of nearly infinite amounts of information.
  • As a channel for nearly infinite pathways of human to human communication.

As an example: I play guitar, I’m interested in building my own guitar. There are many thousands of videos on YouTube on how to do this, reviews of every single piece I might be considering, and more forums than I can even find with detailed instructions and helpful tips from other people on how to build almost any combination of guitar. This was nonexistent when I was a kid - if you wanted this level of information you were lucky if a book existed, otherwise you had to find someone who knew how to build guitars, maybe at the local music store, if you happened to have one and someone working there knew something about guitars.

The Internet supports these activities, but most of the attention economy (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc) is driven by users being distracted by other things. Facebook might help you organize real-life events, but wouldn’t it be great if you also paid attention to these people you never see in real-life? Twitter might be a great place to follow your favorite author, but wouldn’t it be great if you also saw some retweets about a political argument from a friend of a friend? YouTube might be a great place to watch instructional videos, but hey also have you considered that 9/11 might have been perpetrated by the US government and here’s a 3-hour long video about that from OffTheGridLifeAmerica you might be interested in. Accepting these platforms as they would like you to accept them (i.e., in a way that makes them money) can only be done in a way that is inherently detrimental to your free time and quality of life.

My main takeaways from the book:

  1. Delete / block anything digital that doesn’t improve your real-life experience. Going back to the guitar example above, if a digital experience makes you want to play guitar more, great! If you spend all your time on Instagram looking at guitars, stop it. The rule of thumb here seems to be if you want to spend less time on the digital activity and more time on the IRL activity it fosters, it’s probably ok.

  2. Assume every addition to your life is a net negative unless proven otherwise. This isn’t a “digital minimalism” philosophy, it’s just a minimalism philosophy. It’s seemingly a trend, or else Netflix wouldn’t have produced that Marie Kondo show, right?

  3. Build or create something every week. I liked this idea. I started blocking out my time better in 2019, and keeping track of things like “exercise 3 days a week”, but the things I keep track of don’t completely fill up my free time. Doing something with your hands is usually completely analog - unless of course it’s building a guitar while watching videos on how to do it. But at the very least it’s not passively digital, which is the point.

  4. Own your shit. Or, phrased more politely, own your turf. I dream of a day I can go online once or twice a week, hit an RSS aggregator and catch up on the activities of all of the people I care about. That was nearly a reality in the early days of the web, but the social media giants would prefer to own your content and make it hard to access unless the reader is also inside their bubble. To that end, I deleted the links on this site to other places (LinkedIn, Mastodon… not Github, that’s actually useful, and not really social media) - if you found me here, what more of me would you wish to find.

In conclusion I give the book ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (out of 5), not on Goodreads or any other platform, just here. Also, true to form, I read the print version, and we got it from the library so we could work on real world minimalism too.

Tagged: book notes