Digital minimalism in the Age of Distraction

Digital minimalism in the Age of Distraction

While it’s clear that Cal Newport advocates a ‘less is more’ approach, he does so in a fair and objective way that explains both the advantages and disadvantages of modern-day technology. Newport is not advocating a complete ban against all new technology devices. Instead, he suggests ways that could be taken to reap the benefits of, say, a smartphone, without falling into the endless pit of swiping and tapping.

Thoreau’s new economics

Henry Thoreau

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run” – Walden on his ‘new economics’

One highlight in the book concerns Henry Thoreau ‘new economics’. In a nutshell, Thoreau took into account the time something, such as an act, took when considering whether it was worth doing. Compare to this standard economics. The example in the book is that if improving one acre of land yields you £1 in profit, whereas improving sixty acres gives you £60 in profit, then you ought to strive to improve sixty acres so that you earn more profit (as per standard economic thinking goes). What this misses, however, is whether the added time taken is worth it. Thoreau was a firm believer of deliberate living: doing what was necessary to lead a comfortable life that satisfies his living requirements and nothing more.

It’s a simple but powerful idea that is at the core of digital minimalism. A typical digital minimalist may ask, “Is this new app actually providing a significant impact on my life?” before installing it. If so, install it (and they may circumscribe when it is acceptable to use it).

Bottom-up approach: what is needed for a fulfilling life?

“To be apart of the world, but not of it” – Amish

With respect to technology, the Amish are interesting people. They’re considered to be the modern-day Luddites: no automobiles, phones, off the electric grid, etc. The key question they ask of themselves when it comes to a new piece of technology is will it actually improve the lives of those in their community?

When a new technology comes around, a member of the Amish can go to the bishop and request that they permit them to trial this new technology. The bishop will often agree, and the community closely watches this ‘alpha geek’ to see what impact the technology has on them. If the technology supports the values the Amish value most, they embrace it. If it’s more harmful than beneficial, they don’t. With the introduction of cars at the turn of the 20th century, the Amish noticed that those that owned them would leave their communities to visit other towns, rather than visiting their family or attending to the sick. While it’s not to say that those with cars abandon their local community today, it just goes to show that if they decide to reject a particular technology, it’s for a specific reason.

The Amish aren’t the best group of people when it comes to matters such as democracy within their communities and giving women equal rights. However, there exist more liberal communities, such as the Mennonites, where decisions that affect you are left to you. Even among the Mennonites, you may very well find members that shun devices such as smartphones because it doesn’t align with the lives they wish to lead. Small savings, such as GPS directions, may not be considered that useful. In one example, a Mennonite named Laura believed that it wasn’t a problem for her to write directions down before travelling. Not having a smartphone allowed her to better connect with people (as in being more present in face-to-face conversations, for instance).

iPod revolution

Pre-2000s, we had music players, such as the Sony Walkmans. Listening to music might have been constrained to a long car journey or while exercising. Newport notes that you would not be likely to see people sporting black headphones on the way to work. Fast forward to the early 2000s, with the advent of the iPod, and things changed drastically. With the iPod era, people began to plug earphones in and ignore those around them, taking them off only when one pesky individual, such as myself, started talking to them. One problem with this is that it pulls people away from being with their own thoughts.

Then the iPhone and other smartphones came along and took with us whatever attention we had left for the ‘real world’. If you sniffed boredom coming along, you could easily entertain yourself with your phone.

Newport goes in-depth as to why this is such a big problem in today’s society. For the sake of brevity, I won’t cover that here.

Social approval

After reading Digital minimalism, it seems silly that people crave so much attention online. A waiter brought you a delicious toastie? Take a picture of it and share it with your friends. Why? So they can all say things such as “that looks amazing!”, “so jealous!” or “save me a bite!”. Something mildly entertaining (e.g. someone came up to you and asked you a strange question)? Share it with your 500+ friends. This is noted as being the equivalent of ‘boy boasting’.

What do we get out of the likes, hearts or confirmatory comments? Michael Zeiler’s experiment in the 1970s showed us that unexpected rewards are much more rewarding than an expected reward. If you didn’t expect something (e.g. a particular friend to react to your post), you would receive a higher dose of dopamine than if you had.

A long streak with a friend on Snapchat may signal the strength of the relationship (‘we’ve got a good streak going on Snapchat, so we must be close’). Newport notes how we may feel a compulsive urge to respond to a message immediately if we see it. Apparently (and I reserve full judgement until I explore this further), our Paleolithic brains perceive ignoring an incoming text as equivalent to ignoring a tribe member who is trying to get your attention, which could be a dangerous social act to commit.

Attention seeking economy

Tristan Harris, of Centre for Human Technology (formerly Time well spent) fame, talks about how smartphones (and various software, such as the apps that run on it) are tantamount to slot machines. Often, possibly out of boredom, people may pick up their phones to see what notifications they’ve received. Harris compares to this to a slot machine – you’re constantly thinking about what you have now received this around.

While it may seem extreme, Harris may have a point. It does seem that these devices are addictive. It’s a different type of addiction to alcohol or drug consumption in that you may crave less ‘a hit’, but it’s still an important addiction that we need to consider whether measures should be put in place to curb (e.g. no autoplay by default on YouTube, please).

The digital attention-seeking economy rests on companies like Facebook and Google vying for as much screen time as possible so they can sell you things (e.g. in the form of ads – Facebook’s ad revenue skyrocketed after introducing ads in their mobile app).

Digital minimalism

Digital minimalism: “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else”

The philosophy of digital minimalism asks you to question each technology. If it offers you only minor benefit or convenience, question whether the time you would put into using that technology (the input) is worth what you get out of it (the output). The minimalist approach takes a bottom-up approach, like the Mennonites, of considering what is most valuable to you in your life and then asking whether a new technology is the best way to support that value. This forces technology to work for us rather than the other way around. Technology becomes a tool for us to live better, more focused, fulfilling lives.

Contrariwise, a lot of people take a maximalist approach. The default for them is whether a new technology offers any benefit at all, and they may feel uneasy about missing out on something. If you ask them why you need to be on a service like Facebook, they may respond along the lines of “I don’t know, but what if you miss out on something” (at one point in the book, the “it could be useful?” argument is wittingly remarked by Newport as possibly being the worst sales pitch ever).


Lots of small things can be impacted by technology. A parent who starts limiting their use of a smartphone to only what is essential for them (e.g. contacting family members) may observe how they may be the only parent in the playground who isn’t staring at their phone. Or how those that have adopted the digital minimalism philosophy have seen marked improvements in their life, with others telling them how much happier and present they now are, how present you can be with your children (e.g. not missing the small things because you care more about something trivial on your phone) to having more capacity for free thought and more time for higher-value leisure (Newport goes into detail about what constitutes lower-value leisure and higher-value leisure). It’s also worth considering that our attention span is falling precipitously with new devices and software ready to claim it for their own. The effects of digital maximalism are far-reaching.

There are too many intriguing highlights to share with you, and I’ve only briefly touched upon the surface on those that I have. In good academic fashion, Newport starts with the ‘why’ (e.g. why is solitude important?, why are face-to-face interactions important?, etc.) before picking up how the digital world can subvert us away from those things. Each chapter rounds up with some suggestions for actions to take.