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Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

What is the single biggest factor shaping our lives today? Some suggest it’s our screens.

Although that is a simplistic answer, it is certainly true for many people. And this, obviously, is not good. First of all, we Christians should be most influenced by the gospel, not screens. Secondly, if we are controlled by screens, we are actually controlled by those who control what’s on our screens—and no one, thinking about it, would want to be controlled by the companies that make money from our use of apps and social media.

On the other hand, almost no one would advocate living without screens.

So what should we do, as society in general and as Christian homeschoolers in particular? First of all we need to recognize that

Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.

In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport aims to show how this can be done.   He claims that it is not enough to just tweak a few settings or apps here and there; instead we need a full-fledged philosophy of technology use. Newport proposes Digital Minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

In order to apply this, you need to determine what is the best way for technology to support your values and not allow it to diminish things that are important to you. In other words, digital minimalism means you should be in charge of your tech; it should not rule either your time or your attention.

To make this practical, Newport recommends a 30 day digital declutter in which you take a break from optional technology and use the time to explore and rediscover meaningful activities. He is convinced that, once you rediscover the joys of tech autonomy as opposed to tech addiction, this month of freedom will motivate you to reduce the power that tech companies have over you.

For it is undoubtedly true that tech companies, which are now some of the largest companies of all, need to capture our attention and time in order to make their money. The more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can get from us, the more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can sell to their advertisers and, from their point of view, that is the bottom line. Yes, they provide some useful services, but the vast majority of the time people spend on them does not involve these useful services. Rather, the time we spend is due to psychological manipulation cleverly designed to keep people’s attention. This is not a conspiracy theory; the tech companies admit it.

So, what does Newport recommend to replace tech time during the 30 day digital declutter? He mentions three general categories—solitude, meaningful relationships, and active leisure—discussing both research and practical implementation.

Solitude: For our personal well-being, including mental health, we need time alone with our thoughts, Newport says. This, of course, can lead to all sorts of objections from those who are not used to being with themselves and who are afraid of their own thoughts. It is noteworthy that the recent jump in youth mental illness parallels the advent of the smartphone; research suggests that this is no coincidence. What’s more, if we are never alone with our thoughts, we also have no time to reflect on our lives, to have meaningful relationships with others, or, I would add, to worship God.

Relationships: We seem to be geared for relationship, and the one-dimensional connection of social media is not adequate to meet this deep-seated need. Newport extols the values of conversation and suggests that online connection be limited to facilitating in person conversation, preferably face to face, but also by phone. Practically, he points out that telling friends and family when you are regularly available for phone calls increases the likelihood that they will feel free to call.

Leisure: A life that is only about solving problems, needs, and difficulties can lead to despair but wise use of leisure time can fill us with joy. Low value tech use has deprived us of satisfying leisure; conversely it is difficult to cut back on tech if there is nothing to fill the void. Newport discusses learning hands on skills, spending time with others, and thoughtfully filling time with activities that are valuable to you. He points out that demanding activities are, in the long run, more satisfying than passive consumption.

Finally, tech companies currently focus their research about attention-holding techniques on mobile devices. Thus a good first step to regaining control of your life is to use social media only on your computer where it will be less addictive.

As Newport points out, the goal of digital minimalism is to apply digital tools to yield big wins in your life instead of to waste time. Its goal is not to reject technology but to reject the usual way of interacting with it. Ultimately, we should use technology instead of being used by it.  This is, of course, similar to the Bible’s viewpoint that we may use anything with thankfulness but should not be enslaved by anything.  Thus Digital Minimalism is helpful for all, Christian or not, who wish to live according to their own values rather than according to tech company’s manipulations.

Throughout his book Newport quotes experts and books, leaving the reader with a list of fascinating resources to explore. He also, as is the fashion in many of these books, explains human psychology and relationships in terms of evolutionary psychology. While researchers in the relevant hard sciences continue to scramble to find scientific evidence for evolution (and to explain away the evidence against it), the softer sciences and evangelical atheists proclaim it as fact. It would be an intriguing exercise to reinterpret Newport’s explanations in terms of man’s function as a creature, now fallen, who was originally designed to be in relationship with God and others.

Fascinating and easy to read, Digital Minimalism would be helpful for anyone who is concerned about the power screens have over us and our children. It is both philosophical and practical.  A similar book, The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch (link to my review), shares many of the same conclusions, applying them to families from a Christian point of view, but it has a different philosophical approach. Because the battle for our attention is so lop-sided, with powerful companies wresting it from ordinary individuals, we really need to arm ourselves with as much information and continued encouragement as possible. Therefore I highly recommend both books to anyone who encounters screens.

Related articles and reviews I have written:

“Reflections on The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch”, a Christian discussion about how use technology wisely in our families.

Review of Captivated:  Finding Freedom in a Media-Captive Culture, a Christian documentary that addresses similar issues.

Glow Kids, Screens, and Education.”  It turns out that screens may cause more educational problems than we suspected.

“Screens and our Kids’ Mental Health, with Tips for Parents.”

Review of Glow Kids:  How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids—and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras.

Review of 52 Ways to Connect with your Smartphone Obsessed Kid by Jonathan McKee. Practical ways to connect or reconnect.

Review of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane.  “Is it possible for children to learn about relationships and responsibilities when the vast majority of their time is spent absorbed in a screen?”

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read, or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from the library and am not compensated for this review.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemakers, Friendship Friday.

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