I was a reluctant reader on this one. My wife recommended it highly, so I knew it was quality. But given the topic, I was afraid it would upend my life.
And I was kinda right.
Newport’s seminal work on the ails of social media, technological pervasiveness, and what he calls “the attention economy” is razor sharp and insightful. Yet, it’s the kind of information that we all already know, deep in our guts. Of course this tech is killing us. Just look at the 2016 election and the social media echo chamber. Look at online bully-ism and trolling. Look at how thoroughly connected our world is like never before, yet male suicide and random violence is on the rise. People are less connected to real physical people, while simultaneously friended by everyone virtually.
So back to his book.
I was afraid of the conclusions, both his and mine, in reading his book. It’s true. Because I’m a screen zombie, like everyone else. Like a bad habit, I reach for that little pocket computer like a junkie when I get the slightest itch of boredom. No longer content to our own thoughts and solitude, this generation of humans has become completely attached to our devices, self included.
Newport doesn’t just lambaste tech throughout. He goes to some surprising places in support of his ethic of less-is-more. For instance, he talks about the Amish community not being what you think they are. Turns out they aren’t actually antiquated Luddites, but just have an all-consuming ethos of DYI and privacy which tends to look anachronistic.
Then Newport discusses Henry David Thoreau at length, whose naturalism and eschewing modernity is a fascinating footnote. That this was even an issue in the mid-1800s is testament that some things never change; i.e., despite how advanced our technology is at this moment, the dangers of isolation that technology promotes is timeless.
Though it drags in places, particularly in user examples, the overall content and premise is so relevant and helpful, I can’t help but rate it highly. But then, that’s typically how these kinds of books go: self-helps and howtos do tend to drag a bit in the implementation of their content; the audience is either on board for it or not.
I appreciated that Newport is not an all-or-nothing sort of guy. He speaks clearly to the fact that what he calls for is something between Luddism and “early adoption” of technology. On the contrary, rather than #DeleteFacebook right this second (but if that is right for you, by all means), first start with unfollowing all groups and second-degree friends, turn off notifications, and never ever click Like again. Realize, with open eyes, this simple fact about all social media platforms: every second your attention is held by them, they get richer. Curiously in this sense, the attention economy makes Netflix equivalent to Facebook.
The big takeaway from Digital Minimalism is this:
“Low value connection is not a substitute for high value conversation.”
By some strange set of fateful circumstances, I finished Newport’s book mere minutes before conducting open heart surgery on my the very phone in which held the digital book. The layers of meta irony are not lost on me.
The phone, you see, had a cracked screen. These expensive pocket-sized computers, while being absurdly expensive remain utterly fragile. So I bought myself a replacement screen repair kit. With Newport’s conclusion freshly rattling around in my brain, I set to work disassembling my technology shackle.
And in less than an hour, I managed to accidentally render it irreparable. Fittingly, a little fireball erupted from the lithium ion battery pack, finally signaling like a rescue flare an end to my tech dependency. Or for at least a couple weeks anyway.
For now, I’m already enjoying less access to social media and pervasive, intrusive technology. I’m spending measurably more time reading books and acknowledging my kids. Like coming out of a fog, it’s good to breathe again.