Book Review: Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy WorldDigital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eons ago, when the world was young and every website had an animated gif of a skull smoking a cigarette next to the guestbook, there was a website called Something Awful that claimed, fervently, that “the internet makes you stupid”.

Lowtax was right. If only he hadn’t been killed in the ring by Uwe Boll, he would be sweating with pride as we speak.

In addition to stupid, it makes you twitchy, sad, and weird. Sort of like the allegations against toxiplasma gondii. If you have a cat and an active social media presence, you’re a goner.

Cal Newport is a rare breed of academic in that he is young, and seems relatively intelligent. As we know, most academics are wizened absent-minded sorceror caricatures with a mean age of 65. They’re also broke. Cal Newport is not broke, because he’s turned his experiences of “being in school for a long time” into a series of self-help books that mostly focus on improving your ability to study and, thus, be in school for a long time.

And from this well springs Digital Minimalism, the idea that constant tethering to social media results in a cycle addiction identical to, well, every other cycle of addiction.

The central idea is that smartphones are slot machines, by design. Tech companies like Apple and Facebook are deliberately trying to monopolize your time by drawing your attention to your phone as frequently as possible, resulting in your seeing more ads, and their gathering more ad revenue. This produces money from nothing, and also, chicks for free.

The thing is, it’s not from nothing. Nothing can be had for nothing, as promised by Epictetus. You pay for the little dopaminergic zing of digitized social approval with the minutes of your life. Every time you disengage from the present to check how many likes you’ve collected over the past fifteen minutes, you’re putting more money in Zucc’s heat-rock and mealworm fund, and training yourself like a puppy to get dribs and drabs of the feel-good chemical from the glowing space-screen in your pocket.

But you’re not a puppy. You might be subject to the same classical and operant conditioning, but your wiring is infinitely more complex, and thus subject to more opportunities to go haywire. Social approval is one of the most important things to the average human being (average in this instance meaning freshly minted, all other factors controlled for; the fictional human baseline and duerrogotype template), because when ostracized by the tribe, we got eaten by wolves. We turned the wolves into chiuahuas and ostracization means more time to watch Netflix, but we’re still running on that old sapiens hardware. If we perceive our social standing as sinking, the alarm bells start to go off.

Social media creates an imaginary system of social feedback where the highs are virtually nonexistent, but sufficient to reinforce your attention, and continued exposure to the lows can result in long-term psychological disorders. As the author puts it:

“Online discussion seems to accelerate people’s shift toward emotionally charged and draining extremes. The techno-philosopher Jaron Alnier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, and unavoidable feature of the medium; in an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity — a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.”

And then the effect:
Until recently, the mental health center on campus had seen the same mix of teenager issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.

From there, he long-windedly (academic, remember) draws the connection between suddenly pandemic anxiety and smartphone use among the first generation raised with this level of constant connectivity.

A good argument, but untestable, and so relegated to hypothesis. He rolls in some solid science afterward and it starts to look better, citing research by psychologist Matthew Lieberman whose elaborate PET-scan reindeer games determined that the social parts of the brain automatically switch on when you’re not doing anything else.

He now believes “we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time”. Put another way, our brains adapted to automatically practica social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.”

Lieberman ran similar scans on newborns and found their default (social) network lit up during attentional downtime before the infant’s eyes were even able to focus. It’s instinct for us to think socially when we’re not doing anything else, and the constant Matrix linkup ensures that something is always subconsciously on the line for us, and every time we don’t harvest a fat crop of either heart reacts or Farmville turnips it’s evidence of our evolutionary failure and alienation from our fellows.

But big Cal is not all about shaking his head and ominously whispering, “We live in a society”. He’s got a solution, and it’s dumbing down your phone. He recommends:

a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services — dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.

I strongly resent being manipulated, in any context. The concept that minutes of my life are units of currency, converted by Wish into actual legal tender, then given to Mark Zuckerberg, makes my blood boil. I’ve still got a 12-year-old anarchopunk festering somewhere under my sternum, and he absolutely will not abide the prospect of trading time from my life, a nonrenewable resource, to someone else’s profit in an exchange where I get nothing but limbic table scraps. Newport describes it as the social equivalent of “snacking on Doritos instead of eating a meal”.

It seems worth a try to me. I stripped my own phone down to nothing but GPS and Duolingo (and IG, but I hid that in three subfolders, to be accessed only when required for my blog). I’ve caught myself fiending. Every time I check my phone, for any reason, muscle memory tries to flick Messenger or Facebook back open, and that goddamn owl is flailing and screaming at me to get moving on the Russian leaderboards.

Cal was right about one thing, though; when you cut loose the low-quality leisure, you find time you didn’t know you had for things you actually want to do. I got through six books this week. Expect a deluge of reviews.

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