Book Review: Digital Minimalism

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I bought Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in A Noisy World by Cal Newport because I liked his last book, Deep Work. Newport is on the Computer Science faculty at Georgetown University. He studies and writes about the impact of technology on society.

Cal Newport does not have, and never has had, a social media account. Digital Minimalism is about living and working in a world where the rest of us have several accounts and use them all the time

The book has two parts. Part one has three chapters. The first chapter is “A Lopsided Arms Race.” It’s about how social media companies manipulate our attention so they can make more money. There’s a lot of good information and analysis, even if the chapter seems like “Chicken Little.”

Chapter two is “The Philosophy of Digital Minimalism.” According to Newport, there are three principles of digital minimalism. the first principle is that clutter is costly. Principle two is that optimization is important. Principle three is that intentionality is satisfying. Newport tells us that these principles are “self-evident.” Then he devotes several pages to arguments for them.

Chapter three is “The Digital Declutter.” It’s written to help you move from being the helpless pawn of digital media to someone in control of their own life. Newport assumes that everyone has many digital media feeds and that we spend far too much time checking our feeds and posting on them. He never explicitly states this assumption and never supports it.

What he describes is not true for most of the people I know. Most of them use only one, or two media. They use their feed(s) for a specific purpose. I’m around young people like the people Newport describes. Could their usage pattern be the temporary result of coming of age in a world where there is so much social media?

Part two of the book is about practices. The first chapter, “Spend Time Alone,” is excellent. If you start the book and decide it’s not for you, skip ahead and read chapter four before you quit for good.

Newport describes the effects of digital social networks on people born after 1995.  It’s very scary and deserves more than part of a chapter.

Chapter five is about how to use social media. Newport uses the phrase, “When used properly,” which seems to shift blame to the user. Chapter five also contains an excellent analysis of the experimental designs for some of the research about how people use digital media and what the consequences are.

Chapter six helps us “Reclaim Leisure.” The leisure that Newport wants us to reclaim is mostly about doing things with our hands. Newport suggests that we should become “handy.” I would rather spend time studying the history of art (a current passion) or taking my grandson to a museum. I wish there had been more on other forms of leisure, like learning to tango, hiking the trails in a local park, or family dinners.

Finally, we come to chapter seven, “Join the Attention Resistance.” Newport comes full-circle to the evil, manipulative digital media. If you want to resist them, you’ll find ideas here about what you can do. If you’re more concerned about how digital media fits into a life well-lived for you or the people you love, you can skip this chapter.

In A Nutshell

Digital Minimalism is a very uneven book. Some parts are very, very good. Other spots seem like they were dashed off to increase the page count., I would buy this book for the first chapter on a lopsided arms race, chapter four on solitude, and the material in chapter five analyzing experimental designs.

Cal Newport could have written a book about the impact of digital media and other forces on people born after 1995. He could have written a book about how to integrate social media into a life well lived. Instead, he wrote Digital Minimalism. That’s our loss.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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