Highlights from ‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport (intro + Ch.1)

I’ve set up a Slack-based book club. It starts on Monday and we’re reading Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism: choosing a focused life in a noisy world.

I’m not sure whether it’s ironic or appropriate that I’ve completed the first week’s reading on the Kindle app on my smartphone?

Either way, what follows is what I highlighted while I read. This post is for reference and I’ll engage in discussion on Slack!


“The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”

“[Users] joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.”

“Few serious commentators think we’d be better off retreating to an earlier technological age. But at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they’ve become a slave to their devices. This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.”

“In my work on this topic, I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

“Long before Henry David Thoreau exclaimed “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” Marcus Aurelius asked: “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”Digital minimalism simply adapts this classical insight to the role of technology in our modern lives.”

“In Walden, Thoreau famously writes: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.”

Ch.1 – A Lopsided Arms Race

“It’s widely accepted that new technologies such as social media and smartphones massively changed how we live in the twenty-first century. There are many ways to portray this change. I think the social critic Laurence Scott does so quite effectively when he describes the modern hyper-connected existence as one in which “a moment can feel strangely flat if it exists solely in itself”.”

“The source of our unease is not evident in these thin-sliced case studies, but instead becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them. Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience. It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.”

“People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”

“Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine—a key neurotransmitter for regulating our sense of craving.”

“Attention-catching notification badges, or the satisfying way a single finger swipe swoops in the next potentially interesting post, are often carefully tailored to elicit strong responses. As Harris notes, the notification symbol for Facebook was originally blue, to match the palette of the rest of the site, “but no one used it.” So they changed the color to red—an alarm color—and clicking skyrocketed.”

“Social media, in particular, is now carefully tuned to offer you a rich stream of information about how much (or how little) your friends are thinking about you at the moment.”

“As Socrates explained to Phaedrus in Plato’s famous chariot metaphor, our soul can be understood as a chariot driver struggling to rein two horses, one representing our better nature and the other our baser impulses. When we increasingly cede autonomy to the digital, we energize the latter horse and make the chariot driver’s struggle to steer increasingly difficult—a diminishing of our soul’s authority.”