Digital Minimalism (Book review)

smart phone stupid human

Smart phone

Stupid Human

If you haven’t read Cal Newports book Digital Minimalism, you might want to “put on your big-boy pants” and go do that! Cal Newport is also the author of Deep Work, which I also recommend. Over the last year, I’ve really scaled back on how much I look at screens, and then I read Newports book. I thought I was doing so well!

His book is packed with hard data from surveys of around sixteen hundred people that he tested with, well, becoming Digital Minimalists. It’s very insightful and at times hard-hitting on the conscience. He offers a number of quotes from real social media “big shots” that will almost by themselves make you upset enough that you ever got involved with social media.

Consider this one from Sean Parker who served as the first president of Facebook. In the fall of 2017 he spoke candidly at an event:

“The thought process that went into the building of these applications, Facebook being the first of them, was always 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 likes or commented on a post or a photo or whatever.”

Regarding the addictive qualities of the little red notification badges, Newport writes:

“Remember that early social media sites featured very little feedback. Their operations focused instead on posting and finding information. It tends to be this early pre-feedback features that people site when explaining why social media is important to them. When justifying Facebook usage for example, many people point to something like the ability to find out if a friends new baby has been born which is a one-way transfer of information that does not require feedback. It’s implied that people like this news. In other words there’s nothing fundamental about the unpredictable feedback of most social media services. If you took those features away you would likely not diminish the value people derive from them. The reason why this specific dynamic works so well universally is that it keeps eyes glued to screens. These psychological forces are a lot of what Harris had in mind when he held up a smart phone on 60 minutes and told Anderson Cooper ‘this thing is a slot machine.’”

In other words, social media can provide you with exactly the value you’re looking for without the notifications or even the red number badge icons. Those things are designed to create addictive use on purpose!

Even the scrolling features of these sites are designed to keep you engaged. Newport sites a study where pigeons were given a button they could peck that would dispense food. Other pigeons were given a button that would only sometimes dispense food, and sometimes not. The result was that the birds with unpredictable food dispensing hit the button more, and essentially created a new “normal” for themselves where they would hit the button repeatedly even when they’d already eaten apparently just to see what they’d get. That’s kind of like a slot machine! The scrolling feature on social media sites provides people with a constant unpredictability of what the algorithm will show next. Combine that with the red badge icon that might be letting you know that someone was thinking of you in some way, and you’ve got a recipe for addiction.

Newport uses his data to make three things very clear.

1) Most people drastically underestimate their screen time usage.

2) Most people drastically overestimate how useful and necessary much technology really is.

3) Most people have created a new “normal” for themselves in which they are unaware just how much technology has hurt their ability to focus, be productive, and be creative.

What’s more is that it leaves you longing for a simpler way of thinking and remembering just how great that really was.

He finished the book with a very balanced outlook. He doesn’t suggest that everyone must ruthlessly delete social media and scratch things on stone tablets. No, to the contrary, he acknowledges that there really are sensible ways to use it for certain, very specific individuals. He even gives examples of how these people are using technology in minimalist ways. Super helpful!

Newport recommends people start with a thirty day tech fast during which time one should write down what is actually valuable to their life and keep it short. Then, when the thirty days are up, begin only reintroducing technology into your life if (and only if) it passes your written values.

I’ve been scaling back myself. That’s why I started this blog. It gives me a place to put my thoughts without only “one-bit interactions” like the “Like” feature or “heart” feature on social media. This prompts more “social internet” interactions as opposed to “social media” ones (which the author describes as the “training wheels” of online social interactions).

If I could apply these principles to one of the Five Doctrines of Christian Manhood, I’d say it fits within Temperance for sure. Overall, it’s a great book. I deleted Twitter last week (I’d stopped using it anyway). I’m targeting Instagram this week. And then, the “silver tuna”, Facebook will be next. I’m actually really looking forward to it!

You can find the book here.