The Principal's Library: Review of "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport

October 21, 2019
Source: District of the USA
library

Fr. Jonathan Loop, Principal of Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls, ID, recently published this book review on the need for us to disconnect more from the virtual world.

Dear Parents and Friends,

Please find included the third edition of the "Principal's Library." It has been almost a year since I sent the previous edition of this letter, and, as you will see, this one is a bit on the longer side (maybe 5-15 minutes of reading). I have tried to break it into sections so that you can read different parts as your schedule permits.

I have read a few very interesting books of late; in particular, let me recommend to you two by Anthony Esolen: Defending Boyhood and 10 Ways to Destroy Your Child's Imagination. Each are thoughtful and give an intriguing look at some of the ills of our modern age and how they impact children (and boys) especially.  

However, I chose to review a book titled Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, which was recommended to me by the former president of Exsurge [the youth group for Immaculate Conception Chapel in Post Falls], as I think it is quite apropos for anyone who has a responsibility for raising children.  God willing, this will be of some use to you.

- Fr. Jonathan Loop

Title: Digital Minimalism  

Author: Cal Newport

Length: ~250 pages

Required Reading Time: 5-7 hours

Notable Quote:  "In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with digital noise."

Why Is This Book Worth Your Time?

Our world is increasingly dominated by the internet and online tools and it is important to make use of these instruments in an intelligent fashion.  However, these apps are often designed specifically so as to "addict" us and lead us to think we cannot do without them. However, it is not merely for our own sakes that we need to be able to think clearly about how to use technology; we are responsible for young and impressionable children whom we must train to be able employ these devices without being ruined by them.

Who Is the Author?

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and has written a number of books, many of which are dedicated to cultivating one's attention and capacity to devote oneself entirely to a task. 

Structure

The book is divided into two main sections.  

Foundations

In the first, Newport shows that many new technologies and apps (especially on phones) are specifically designed by computer programmers to cause users to become addicted to them. He then argues that we need to have a principled way to make use of these technologies, which he calls "digital minimalism," and which he defines in the following way: "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." Finally, he advocates that people do a "digital de-clutter," revolving around a 30 day "fast" or "retreat" from all such devices so as to learn which ones are truly useful for our lives.

Practices

In the second, he discusses various ways that we can introduce more balance into our life so that we have less need of the distractions offered by social media. In particular, he focuses on three different areas we can consciously strive to alter our behavior so as to be able to do without our digital drugs. Perhaps the most important of all these was his recommendation to remove all social media from your phone. He notes that Facebook earns over 80% of its revenue from its mobile platform, indicating that the majority of time spent on the social media giant is on one's phone. He does highlight other ways to fill that time.

Spend Time Alone

He argues that we need solitude to be emotionally and mentally healthy. He recommends a few practices that can nourish healthy time alone.

  • Leave one's phone at home when going about town.
  • Take long walks
  • Journal/write letters to yourself

Don't Click "Like"

In short, this means don't engage with people on social media beyond what is most strictly necessary, since this human interaction is a poor substitute for the face-to-face conversation we need as social creatures. This section has some interesting research on the effects of social media on friendship (mostly negative). To deal with this, he recommends:

  • Set specific times to answer text messages.
  • Set aside time for more engaged conversations, whether by phone or in person.

Reclaim Leisure

This is the best section, insofar as it details how we need worthwhile activities that engage our heart and mind in order to be happy.  He makes a few suggestions here:

  • Prioritize demanding activity (constructive hobbies or repairing the house) over passive consumption (e.g., watching Netflix / Youtube / etc.)
  • Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.  This teaches humility and true pride: humility because we realize what it takes to produce something, true pride because we actually accomplish it.
  • Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions. 

Strengths

Perhaps the single most important strength is his acknowledgement that it is not enough to get rid of a lot of our wasted time online. Rather, we must replace it with worthwhile activities. Otherwise, we simply create a void in our lives that we won't be able to endure, leading us to resume our frivolous - if not dangerous - time online. His suggestions are quite down to earth (they are intended for people in the world who do not have the Faith and know nothing of the promise of eternal life) and I think quite possible to implement in our own lives.

Also it should be noted that his approach is very balanced.  He does not simply assert we should go "cold turkey" on technology. Rather, he persuasively argues that we have to be aware of the very real dangers that many new forms of technology and social media present to our peace of soul - completely independently of the question of impurity and immodesty which are so intimately connected with the internet. Furthermore, he convincingly argues that we must cultivate the habit of consciously subordinating our use of online tools (including social media in some measure) to our more critical and vital life goals (e.g., friendship, reflection, etc.).

Weaknesses

Not unsurprisingly for someone who lives and works in modern academia, Newport certainly accepts many dogmas of the modern world, including evolution and gender theories (he speaks of how one person preferred to be referred by the pronoun "they"). For example, he argues that our minds are not adapted to modern clickbait communication because they are the product of millions of years of evolution.  

Fortunately, these presuppositions do not undermine the very cogent thoughts he presents about the dangers of our digital world.