JUNE 10, 2019
WRITING IN THE LATE 1940s, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton described how technology seeps into and reorganizes the internal life of modern human beings. “Certainly it would seem,” he wrote, “that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.” This sentiment reflects a similar one made a few years earlier by Martin Heidegger. Riffing on Plato’s concern with what we lose when we move from the spoken to the written word, Heidegger declares that, yes, the typewriter is the new culprit: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man’s experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.”
As we flounder in our digitally saturated environment, these observations seem impossibly quaint. That both Merton, in his Kentucky monastery, and Heidegger, in his Black Forest “hut,” spent most of their adult lives unplugged and off the grid makes me wonder what — if any — measures we could now take to escape our brave new virtual world. Our love affair — indeed, our addiction — with screens and the joy we take in pushing buttons has only deepened. The behavioral indicators of chemical dependency align quite well with our near-constant interaction with smartphones. Add to this the sophistication and economic muscle Silicon Valley spends on rewiring our neurological circuitry to make us crave more time with our devices and it now looks like our attachment is incurable.
Happily, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World suggests a cure of sorts to our postmodern predicament. Newport approaches his topic with an unapologetically aggressive and practical method that is sure to strike many as drastic. This is exactly what drew me in about this book: it pulls no punches, insisting on radical behavioral changes if we are to have any chance of re-establishing an intentional approach to our digital lives. “In my experience,” writes Newport, “gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well — the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started.” A 30-day “digital declutter,” where we impose severe restrictions on the technology we use, is ground zero for the battle. The first part of the book sets up the problem and walks us through this detox process; the second half suggests what we should do with our new minimalist selves.
Newport’s brand of digital minimalism draws from a group of 21st-century life hackers and productivity gurus who preach a new gospel of less is more. Two of the biggest proponents of this movement, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (self-dubbed “the Minimalists”), have urged their readers and listeners to strip away all the things in their lives that crowd out meaningful relationships and experiences. Applied to personal technologies, Newport classifies digital minimalism as a “philosophy of technological use,” centered upon three fundamental principles: clutter is costly, optimization is important, and intentionality is satisfying. By turning on its head the “there’s an app for that” mindset — generating endless technological solutions for faux problems — we can rely on our real, embodied selves to decide whether and how we want to use technology for a very small set of real hurdles.
But digital declutter is just the first step. The breakthrough occurs for Newport when we re-engage with those simple and fundamental human activities long held as the hallmark of meaningful lives: experiencing solitude, enjoying face-to-face conversations, and engaging in rewarding leisure practices. The underlying thrust of all of Newport’s “practices” is to reorient us toward our own embodiment. It’s a kind of backward phenomenology that begins with the problem of digital ex-carnation and moves us closer toward an analog reincarnation in our natural abode.
To this end, Newport reflects on three core practices now crowded out by our overuse of technology: solitude, conversation, and leisure. He follows Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in defining solitude as the absence of “input from other minds,” noting that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to completely deprive ourselves of solitude. Through digital declutter, we are reacquainted with our own thoughts and feelings, an admittedly disquieting proposition for many of us. Newport, in fact, commends to us the exercise of writing letters to our future selves as a way of initiating that process.
But the best way to find solitude is, quite simply, by walking alone. Newport pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s time at the Soldiers’ Home cottage in North DC as a reprieve from the busyness of the White House, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche’s long sojourns in the Italian Alps. These times of withdrawal provided both men the space and time necessary to make hard decisions and produce great works. As Newport puts it, we need solitude to flourish, for “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” Likewise, Henry David Thoreau, one of Newport’s constant companions, would walk to town rather than using a horse and wagon, thus exemplifying technological minimalism. In fact, Thoreau calculated how the hours it took him to walk from Walden pond to Concord offset the amount of labor hours it would have taken him to afford the wagon. Tragically, we have surrendered this calculus, Newport argues, to the purveyors of the attention economy. We’ve traded our souls for a few small conveniences, and we need long periods of solitude to recenter the self that is now scattered across the digital landscape.
With respect to conversation, Newport distinguishes between high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth communication. He argues that conversation is a high-bandwidth form of communication that is far more suited to our evolutionary development as social beings than the salvos of data with which social media pummel us. How ironic, Newport notes, that our fixation with the “like” button prevents us from truly knowing what we like. By liking another, we fail to know others. Indeed, by depriving ourselves of face-to-face contact with others, we widen the sea of angst that no amount of “likes” can ever hope to bridge. This phenomenon is borne out by research into college-age students, who experienced a radical increase in anxiety-related disorders around 2011, the same year that smartphones became widely available to consumers and teenagers began owning their own phones.
Rounding out his set of suggested practices, Newport takes a cue from Aristotle’s concept of entelecheia, where the end and actuality of a thing are internal to its own activity. Newport urges us to develop habits for the sake of the pleasures they generate, and nothing besides. As Josef Pieper pointed out in his own timely meditation on leisure, such habits are not idle breaks from work but vigorous and often demanding intellectual or physical pursuits. They are meant to counterbalance our craving for passive digital consumption with strenuous activity, to trade our disorganized, low-bandwidth connections for highly structured and high-bandwidth socializing, and to replace our ephemeral contributions to the web with physical, real-world creations. Paradoxically, the more we work at leisure, the less work we need to do in order to break free of the digital vortex.
In the 2008 film The Hurt Locker, there is a poignant scene where the main character, William James, who leads a team disarming IEDs during the Iraq War, goes grocery shopping with his wife and child on a brief return from overseas. Tasked with picking out the cereal, James circuitously wanders the store until he finally finds the breakfast aisle. Accosted by the infinite array of choices — each one as insignificant as the other — James looks up and down the wall of cardboard boxes, dumbfounded. After a few moments of bewilderment, he grabs the nearest box within arms reach and listlessly tosses it into his shopping cart.
It’s a moment that has resonated with me for over a decade, crisply illustrating our modern malaise. We want the clarity of a decision that can cut through the noise. We want some semblance of meaning that can steer the rudder of our lives. We want to hack through the commercial and technological maximalism that defines our time. In short, we want what Merton described as an ascent to the active passivity of understanding and love and the more urgent relationship that Heidegger sought with Being.
It is unclear whether we can find our way toward these lofty goals. But if we are to make this journey, then surely the first step is to clear out the invasive overgrowth of our digital lives. To this end, Newport’s Digital Minimalism gives us a fighting chance.