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  • Doug Belshaw 8:37 am on February 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , digital minimalism, , , ,   

    Highlights from ‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport (Ch.2) 

    Although it took me a while to get into Newport’s Deep Work, I have to say I’m not very impressed with this book so far. That’s for a couple of reasons:

    1. He disdains ‘tips and tricks’ but offers something similar in the form of ‘restrictions’ and ‘optimisations’.
    2. What he’s proposing so far sound less like minimalism and more like asceticism.

    “The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviors we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and, as I argued in the previous chapter, they’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.”

    “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.”

    “As Adam admits, the loss of his smartphone made certain things in his work life more annoying. In particular, he relies heavily on text messages to coordinate with his staff, and he soon relearned how hard it is to type on the little plastic buttons of an old-fashioned cell phone. But Adam is a digital minimalist, which means maximizing convenience is prioritized much lower than using technology to support his values. As a father, teaching his kids an important lesson about embracing life beyond the screen was far more important than faster typing.”

    “Digital minimalists are also adept at stripping away superfluous features of new technologies to allow them to access functions that matter while avoiding unnecessary distraction. Carina, for example, is on the executive council of a student organization that uses a Facebook group to coordinate its activities. To prevent this service from exploiting her attention every time she logs on for council business, she reduced her set of friends down to only the fourteen other people on the executive council and then unfollowed them. This preserves her ability to coordinate on the Facebook group while at the same time keeping her newsfeed empty.”

    “My argument for this philosophy’s effectiveness rests on the following three core principles:

    Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

    Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

    Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

    The validity of digital minimalism is self-evident once you accept these three principles. With this in mind, the remainder of this chapter is dedicated to proving them true.”

    “Thoreau then asks what benefits these worn-down farmers receive from the extra profit they eke out. As he proved in his Walden experiment, this extra work is not enabling the farmers to escape savage conditions: Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town more efficiently.”

    “Thoreau’s new economics, however, demands that you balance this profit against the costs measured in terms of “your life.” How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Assume, for example, that your Twitter habit effectively consumes ten hours per week. Thoreau would note that this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefits it returns. If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits.”

    “The reason I’m introducing this idea from economics in this chapter on digital minimalism is the following: if you’re willing to accept some flexibility in your definition of “production process,” the law of diminishing returns can apply to the various ways in which we use new technologies to produce value in our personal lives. Once we view these personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll gain the precise vocabulary we need to understand the validity of the second principle of minimalism, which states that optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.”

    “With this in mind, assume you invest some energy to identify a more carefully curated set of online news sites to follow, and to find an app, like Instapaper, that allows you to clip articles from these sites and read them all together in a nice interface that culls distracting ads. This improved personal technology process for keeping informed is now producing even more value in your personal life. Perhaps, as the final step in this optimization, you discover through trial and error that you’re best able to absorb complex articles when you clip them throughout the week and then sit down to read through them all on Saturday morning on a tablet over coffee at a local café.”

    “Another optimization that was common among the digital minimalists I studied was to remove social media apps from their phones. Because they can still access these sites through their computer browsers, they don’t lose any of the high-value benefits that keep them signed up for these services. By removing the apps from their phones, however, they eliminated their ability to browse their accounts as a knee-jerk response to boredom. The result is that these minimalists dramatically reduced the amount of time they spend engaging with these services each week, while barely diminishing the value they provide to their lives—a much better personal technology process than thoughtlessly tapping and swiping these apps throughout the day as the whim strikes.”

    “Finding useful new technologies is just the first step to improving your life. The real benefits come once you start experimenting with how best to use them.”

    “As Kelly elaborates in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants, the simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm, where “cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.” Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the “smoking, noisy contraption.” Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.”

    “As with the Amish who find contentment without modern conveniences, an important source of Laura’s satisfaction with her smartphone-free life comes from the choice itself. “My decision [to not use a smartphone] gives me a sense of autonomy,” she told me. “I’m controlling the role technology is allowed to play in my life.” After a moment of hesitation, she adds: “It makes me feel a little smug at times.” What Laura describes modestly as smugness is almost certainly something more fundamental to human flourishing: the sense of meaning that comes from acting with intention.”

    “Outsourcing your autonomy to an attention economy conglomerate—as you do when you mindlessly sign up for whatever new hot service emerges from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist class—is the opposite of freedom, and will likely degrade your individuality.”

  • Doug Belshaw 5:36 pm on February 9, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , digital minimalism, , , ,   

    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.”

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