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5 Takeaways: Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport

With Digital Minimalism Cal Newport has written a timely book about the challenges posed by our noisy world. For me his chapter "Join the Attention Resistance" was obviously particularly inspiring: Mr. Newport finally came up with a name for a movement that is long overdue.



The book discusses some common-sense advice for the practice of digital minimalism like turning off notifications, but has also some deeper insights to offer. I will consider 5 takeaways that inspired me to think differently about how I want to live with technology. I will refer to the chapters of this edition at the end of each paragraph or in brackets.

1. Technology crept upon us

Technologies like smartphones and social media weren't originally designed to be as all-encompassing as they are today. The iPhone, for example, was debuted in 2007 as an improved iPod: to listen to music and make phone calls. It is said that Steve Jobs first dismissed the idea that the iPhone could be used with third-party apps and for gaming. Facebook used to be just a tool to find friends and communicate with them, not a site to keep you engaged for hours with news, gaming and general time wasting.

But as can be seen from these two examples, a lot of technologies have managed to expand way beyond the minor roles for which we originally adopted them.

We brought devices and habits in our lives not knowing what huge impact they might one day have. Simply put: we didn't sign up for this.


See: A Lopsided Arms Race, 3-25



2. Dehumanization is an issue

Technologies like apps or social media are designed to be as addictive as possible ("slot machines in our pockets", 13). The like button, for example, uses the natural human desire for approval and therefore uses one of our primal urges to keep us engaged.

One downside of wasting hours in the digital world is solitude depravation. There seems to be less and less time to be just with ourselves and our thoughts. A lot of times it seems to be easier to read the news, check messages or watch a video instead of processing emotions, reflecting on relationships and just be with our thoughts.

Another downside is the loss of meaningful human interactions. The constantly tempting stream of news feeds and digital interaction keeps us focussing on the wrong things. Do the contents of my personalized social media news feed really matter to me? Or do I find myself in a state of time-wasting with meaningless news that I would never have actively opened somewhere? Sometimes it feels like being a fly on a nasty, sticky flytrap. Do we want to be glued to that trap while people are making money off us and life passes by?


See: Spend Time Alone, 85-109; Introduction IX-XVIII



3. No little tricks and quick fixes will do

Cal Newport doesn't think that little tricks and quick fixes such as a digital detox will do. He suggests a general change of lifestyle where we are only letting things in our lives that bring joy and support our individual values.

We should maximize value while reducing cost to time and energy with purposeful rules for using a technology. The following questions may help:

· What do I value? Does a certain technology support that?

· What am I really gaining by using it?

· What do I need, what technology can fulfill that?

· What makes me use a certain technology: convenience or necessity?

· What are the habits that govern my use of technology?

See: Digital Minimalism, 27-58

4. Our relationship with technology is unsustainable

The constant stream of impressions leads to exhaustion. There is a difference between high quality leisure and low quality leisure. High quality leisure replenishes us. Such activities lead to a new perspective and give us the strength to master everyday difficulties. On the other hand there is low quality leisure such as a lot of digital activities. They are not consciously chosen as a great activity for free time but started unconsciously because one click leads to another.


See: Reclaim Leisure, 165-212



5. Attention Resistance

The attention economy sells our attention to advertisers while exploiting our human vulnerabilites. Therefore we have to retain our autonomy and be aware of our role in this cooperation. Do we want to be part of the attention economy? Do we want to be externals in the digital world?


It is important to not understand this movement as being anti-technology. It is just time to decide how we want to live our lives with technology.


See: Join the Attention Resistance, 213-248

This Post was originally published Nov 20, 2019

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