Review: Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Feb 24 21:01:44 PST 2020

Digital Minimalism
by Cal Newport

Publisher: Porfolio/Penguin
Copyright: 2019
ISBN:      0-525-53654-X
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     256

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown with a
long-standing side interest in personal productivity and career
development. I first ran across his work with Deep Work, the thesis of
which is that the most valuable resource for knowledge workers is
concentration and the ability to think deeply about a topic, but our
work environments and tools are structured to undermine that
concentration. I found, and still find, Deep Work persuasive, even if
that hasn't fully translated into following its recommendations.

This book is only glancingly about concentration, however. Newport has
gotten interested in what he calls "digital minimalism," joining the
chorus of people who say that smart phones and social media are bad for
your brain. If you're already starting to roll your eyes, you're not
alone. I think Newport has a few interesting things to say and
successfully avoids most of the moral panic that infests news media
coverage of this topic, but I'd rather read more in the vein of Deep

Newport's basic thesis is sound: Social networks, and to a lesser
extent smart phones and mobile apps in general, are designed to make
money for their authors by monetizing your attention. The companies
behind them aren't opposed to making your life better if that helps
hold your attention, but it's not their primary goal, nor is it clear
if they know how to improve your life in any meaningful way. They do
know, extremely well, how to exploit human psychology to keep you
returning to their product.

How they do this is a topic of much speculation and analysis. Newport
primarily blames three things: the ubiquitous availability of mobile
devices, the addictive power of intermittent positive reinforcement,
and exploitation of the human desire for social approval.

The second of those is, I think, the least obvious and the one with the
most interesting psychological research. Behavioral experiments in
psychology (specifically, Michael Zeiler's 1971 experiment with
pigeons) seem to indicate that unpredictable rewards can be more
addictive than predictable rewards. Zeiler compared pigeons who were
rewarded for every button press with pigeons who were sometimes
rewarded and sometimes weren't at random, and found that the second
group pressed the button twice as much. Newport argues that social
media interactions such as the like button, or even just searching
posts for something interesting or unexpected, produce exactly this
sort of unpredictable, random positive reinforcement, and are thus more
addictive than reliable and predictable rewards would be.

The other points are more obvious, and expand on themes Newport
discussed in his previous books. Mobile devices plus social media
provide convenient and immediate access to lightweight social
interactions. We can stay lightly in touch with far more people than we
could interact with in person, and easily access the small mental and
social rewards of curiosity, life news, and content-free moments of
connection. As you might expect from Newport's focus on concentration
and deep thinking, he considers this ubiquitous, shallow distraction to
be dangerous. It requires little sustained effort, offers few
meaningful rewards, and is developed and marketed by companies with an
incentive to make it mildly addictive. Newport believes these sorts of
trivial interactions crowd out deep and meaningful ones and can make us
feel perpetually distracted and harried.

So far, so good; this is a defensible take on social media. But it's
also not very groundbreaking, and is only a small part of this book.
Most of Digital Minimalism is about what Newport proposes we do about
it: Cut back significantly (at first, completely) on social media and
replace it with other activities Newport finds more worthy.

To give him credit, he doesn't fall for the moralizing simplification
that either screens or social media are inherently bad. His thesis is
that social media is one of a number of tools we can choose to use, and
that we should make that choice thoughtfully, base it on the value that
tool can bring compared to other ways we could spend the same time, and
restrict any tool we do choose to only the purposes for which it has
value. He therefore doesn't propose dropping social media entirely;
rather, he recommends deciding what purpose it serves for you and then
using it only for that purpose, which can often be done in a half-hour
on the weekend from a desktop computer rather than in numerous
interrupted intervals throughout the day on a phone.

I think this is sensible, but maybe that's because I'm already (mostly)
doing what Newport suggests. I never created a Facebook account
(thankfully, my family doesn't use it). My one social media time sink
is reading Twitter, but knowing my tendency to get into arguments
on-line, I have an iron-clad rule to treat Twitter as strictly
read-only and never post, thus avoiding at least the social approval
aspects. I learned my lesson on Usenet that on-line arguments can
expand to fill all available time, and it's worth thinking very hard
about what I'm trying to accomplish. There's usually something else I
could be doing that would either be more fun or more productive (and
often both).

I was therefore less interested in Newport's advice and more interested
in how he chose to provide it and in what he recommends people
substitute for social media. This is a mixed bag.

Those who follow his blog will know that Newport is relentlessly
apolitical in public. That's a more severe problem for Digital
Minimalism than it is for Deep Work because a critique of social media
begs to be a critique of marketing-driven capitalism and the economic
and social systems that support building commercial empires on top of
advertising. Newport predictably refuses to follow that thread. He
makes specific, limited, and targeted criticisms of social media
companies that go only as far as observing that they commodify our
attention, but absolutely refuses to look at why attention is a
commodity or what that implies about our economic system. I was
unsurprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Newport also freely mixes in his personal biases and is rather too
credulous when reading studies or authors who agree with him. Frequent
references to Thoreau and Walden as examples of minimalism sound a bit
odd once you know that Thoreau's mother occasionally cooked for him and
did his laundry. Minimalism based on other people's (gendered) labor is
perhaps not the note Newport was trying to strike. In another version
of the same problem, he's enamored of the modern minimalist movement
and FIRE bloggers (Financial Independence, Retire Early), and while I'm
generally sympathetic to people who opt out of the endless
advertising-driven quest to acquire more things, presenting these folks
as successes of minimalism rather than a choice made available via
inherited wealth or access to high-paying contract work is dubious. I
suppose I'll take my allies against capitalism where I can find them,
but I'd rather they be a bit more politically aware.

Also on the bias front, Newport is oddly obsessed with in-person
conversations and physical hobbies. He's dismissive of on-line
relationships and friendships, throws out some dubious arguments about
the lack of depth and emotional nuance in text-based communications,
and claims that nothing done on a computer, even programming, fully
counts as craft. This may well be true of him personally, but speaking
as an introvert who has had multiple deep, decades-long friendships
conducted entirely via letters and on-line chat, he is wrong to
universalize his own preferences. Writing is different than in-person
interactions with the full range of verbal and physical cues, and I
wouldn't recommend eliminating the latter entirely, but there are forms
of written interaction that are not shallow social media. And I will
vigorously defend the thoughtful maintenance of a free software project
as craft and high-quality leisure equal to woodworking.

This is not a bad book, exactly. It has an even narrower target
audience than Newport's other books, namely well-off people who use
social media, but those people exist and buy books. (Newport probably
thinks that the book might be helpful to people who are less well off.
I think he's wrong; the book is full of unmarked assumptions about
availability of the life choices that come with money.) It says some
sensible things about the motives of social media companies, although
it doesn't take that analysis nearly far enough. And it contains some
reasonable suggestions about how to significantly reduce one's personal
use of social media if you need that sort of thing (and if your biases
are mostly compatible with the author's).

That said, I thought Newport was saying something interesting and
somewhat more novel in Deep Work. Digital Minimalism is in line with
numerous other articles about clawing bits of your life back from
social media — more moderate than most, more detailed, and a bit more
applied, but nothing you can't find elsewhere. Hopefully Newport has
gotten it out of his system and will go back to writing about
practicing concentration and improving workplace communication methods.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-02-24


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list