Digital Minimalism: A book review by Bob Morris


Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Mostly Noisy World
Cal Newport
Portfolio/Penguin (February 2019)

How to thrive “in our current moment of technological overload”

I agree with Cal Newport that the impact of technological tools on most people’s personal lives “is complicated by the fact that these tools mix harm with benefits. Smartphones, ubiquitous wireless internet, digital platforms that connect billions of people — these are triumphant innovations!” Indeed they are. That said, he wrote this book to explain how most people can thrive in our current moment of  of technological overload. I call it [begin italics] digital minimalism [end italics], and it applies the belief that [begin italics] less can be more [end italics] to our relationship with digital tools.”

As I worked my way through Newport’s lively as well as eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of  the extensive misapplication of a popular business term, “downsizing.” More often than not, the more (much more) appropriate term is “rightsizing” as in reducing or increasing the number of branch offices or the amount of money spent on advertising.  Obviously, implementing the digital minimalism is easier said than done if done well. I agree that “it is largely an exercise in pragmatism. Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value — not as sources of value themselves.” This is especially true of rightsizing efforts insofar as use of smartphones, the ubiquitous wireless internet, and digital platforms that connect billions of people are concerned.

Newport is well-aware of how difficult it can be to choose and then remain committed to a focused life in a noisy world. it involves, indeed requires a perilous journey that bears some resemblance to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca from Troy amidst relentless temptations, addictions, distractions, and self-doubts.

Here is a representative selection of the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Newport’s coverage:

o Digital minimalism (Pages xv-xvi, 27-58, 22-222, and 252-254)
o Digital declutter (xvi-xvii and 59-81)
o Social media (6-8, 48-49, 79-80, 198-199, and 221-222)
o Adam Alter (13-18 and 101-102)
o Facebook (33-34, 199-200, 213-220, and 232-233)

o Henry David Thoreau/Walden (36-41, 151-152, and 109-111)
o Attention economy (57-59, 199-200, 215-218, 220-221, and 228-230)
o Digital communication tools (59-81)
o Defining technical rules for digital clutter (64-68, 76-77, and 80-81)
o Relationships (65-66 and 158-159)

o Operation procedures in digital declutter (66-68, 76-77, and 80-81)
o Abraham Lincoln (86-93)
o Psychological well-being and digital communication tools (104-109 and 136-141)
o Digital communication tools (103-104, 142-144)
o Loneliness and social media (137-140)

o Reclaiming conversation (144-164)
o Leisure (165-212)
o Skills and craft (171-172, 177=182, and 194-198)
o Solitude (85-126)
o Attention resistance movement community (213-248)

Long ago, Albert Einstein nailed it: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” This is as true of one’s career as it is of one’s personal life. Clutter tends to be the residue of indifference. I urge those who question that to examine each storage area in their home, including garages, basements, and attics if they have them.  All of the closets in the several homes I have occupied since graduate school soon became mausoleums of nostalgia. There are also storage areas within the human mind, filled with useless “stuff.” The problem is compounded by habitual abuse of electronic enablers. Embracing and then initiating digital minimalism, I have learned, can reduce (if not eliminate) that abuse while sharpening skills that can be applied elsewhere within and beyond tghe workplace. Situation analysis, for example, and decision-making.

These are among Cal Newport’s concluding thoughts: “In my experience, the key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology. but is instead more about the quality of your life. The more you experiment with the ideas and practices on the preceding pages [notably the digital decluttering process], the more you’ll come to realize that digital minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices.”

Moreover, he expresses a fervent hope that digital minimalism can provide “a constructive way way to engage and leverage the latest innovations to [begin italics] your [end italics] advantage, not that of faceless attention economy conglomerates, to create a culture” of which all of us can say with confidence, “because if technology, I’m a better human being than I ever was before.”

The analogy I drew earlier to Odysseus’ journey may have been a bit of a stretch but I am convinced that the process of achieving digital minimalism is indeed perilous but can be of substantial benefit as my own process of decluttering has proven to be during the last eight months. The journey continues. Along the way, I have been frequently reminded of this passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in Chapter 2 (“Little Gidding”):

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.”


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