White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” by Cal Newport

Published Monday, July 1, 2019 By Leslie A. Wicke

It seems that every other week, another think piece or investigative report drops about how much social and personal dislocation Facebook, Twitter, Apple, or Google have caused. From privacy invasions to behavioral addictions, what seemed like promising technologies and harmless baubles have become a source of perennial worry. We—the authors of think pieces, the heads of organizations, the mothers of children—ask ourselves: What manner of beast have we invited into our homes?

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism is a practically minded entry in this ongoing conversation about “new technologies” such as smartphones and social media. After establishing the problems of these technologies in the early chapters, Newport prescribes “digital minimalism,” which he calls a philosophy of technology geared toward maximizing what we value and escaping technology’s costs. The rest of the book is taken up with his thirty-day “digital declutter” and reflections on topics related to digital minimalism—particularly solitude, leisure, and social interactions. Newport is clear from the outset that this story has villains: the new technology corporations that have built themselves on the “attention economy,” where serving the user’s needs is secondary to keeping the user hooked into the app, device, or platform. Every second used in this technology equals revenue from advertisers—the real customers in this economy. It may not have begun this way—in fact, the inventors of these new technologies were largely oblivious to the risks—but by now these corporations intentionally and ruthlessly exploit human psychology to increase their bottom line. The outcome is that our lives are measurably worse, and we struggle to control our technology use.

For Newport, this is a problem, because it undermines our autonomy. The freedom to pursue and express one’s own values is a paramount good; and the way that the attention economy hijacks our brains is bad, because it “steals” our ability to make free choices about tool use. But autonomy is not a good in itself, in a traditionally biblical view. In fact, the quest for autonomy is arguably a major part of the first sin. In addition, the emphasis that Scripture lays on creaturely dependence renders the concept of autonomy a questionable one. This raises the question, then, for the Christian reader: Is Digital Minimalism really describing a problem? Or is this just a whole lot of nothing?

It’s helpful to reframe the narrative in terms of eternal values, rather than the kind of nebulous “personal values” Newport wants us to individually, autonomously maximize. Newport persuasively argues that these new technologies degrade our relationships with others and dominate our leisure time. These, rather than autonomy, are values we find in Scripture. To the extent that social media attenuates our relationships with fellow believers and with a world in need of good news, it’s a problem for Christians. To the degree that wasting time on smartphones keeps us from employing our leisure in God-honoring activities, it’s a problem for Christians. This is not to say that Christians can read this book uncritically. The studied secularity of Digital Minimalism creates some jarring contrasts and omissions. For instance, in the chapter on solitude Newport begins a historical survey of the concept, but then he informs us that he’s ignoring anything prior to the Enlightenment for the sake of “concision.” Ignoring the long, rich history of thought on solitude that church history affords seems almost comical, given how readily Newport turns to Aristotle elsewhere.

It also makes his recurring call to use technology in line with one’s personal values an almost empty exhortation. Which values? Why certain values over others? Why not values that maximize constant social media use? This may seem like nitpicking—obviously anyone reading a book called Digital Minimalism is unsatisfied with a value system that prioritizes Twitter—but it is symptomatic of the philosophical shallowness that dogs this book.

In fact, though Newport calls digital minimalism a philosophy, it lacks the intellectual thickness required to qualify. It’s a strategy that may be adopted as part of various philosophies. This is an important distinction for the Christian: the strategy of digital minimalism should be evaluated for its compatibility with the values of Christianity, not as a self-contained philosophical outlook on technology.

While Newport grounds his strategy on secular humanism, the Christian should use different criteria and may find aspects of the strategy more or less valuable in consequence. So, for instance, where Newport looks only at post-Enlightenment concepts of solitude, we may consider the church’s contemplative traditions and reframe solitude not as an experience of absolute selfhood free from other minds, but as an opportunity to give our full attention to God’s mind as he has revealed it to us. This in turn will govern how we approach the book’s practical suggestions for achieving periods of solitude.

In general (as the reader may have guessed), Newport struggles with humanities such as philosophy and history, using the historical record largely as a source for pertinent quotations and anecdotes. This gives those portions of the book a thin quality, and the reader might do just as well to skip them (for example, his lengthy discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s love of solitude does little to advance understanding). Newport seems to be much more at home when discussing science; he summarizes studies and explains neurological processes in an engaging and comprehensible way. These glimpses into the bodily processes through which our minds operate are sometimes encouraging, sometimes unsettling, and usually illuminating.

Alongside his facility with scientific material, Newport is at his best when articulating practical advice. The chapter on the thirty-day digital declutter may seem obvious, but the practices he recommends in the later chapters are well explained and thought provoking. Not everyone, however, is going to have the resources and flexibility to put into practice his suggestions for three-hour walks or taking up welding. For the harried mother of multiple small children, such “high-quality leisure” is the stuff of fantasy. Those who suffer from physical or mental disease may also find some suggestions unrealistic. The book’s advice, especially in the later chapters, requires patience and discernment to render useful.

This is where the larger framework of Christian anthropology can provide the context that Digital Minimalism lacks. We are all beset not only by sin but by physical and mental frailties characteristic of life in a fallen world. But when these frailties pose great obstacles to our practice of responsibility and discipline, we are not left to our own discouragement and sense of failure. The practice of continual repentance and reliance on the power of the Spirit is a strong antidote to the superficially bracing but ultimately unforgiving healthiness of self-help books such as Digital Minimalism.

One additional perspective on Digital Minimalism may transform some of its weakness into strength. Many explanations and analyses only skim the surface of their subject matter, leaving important questions underdeveloped. However, there are plenty of references to other works and authors to whom the interested reader can turn. In this way, Digital Minimalism also acts as an entry point into a constellation of topics on how we use technology. As long as the reader takes it in this spirit, there is plenty to be gleaned despite the relative shallowness of the analysis.

While Digital Minimalism makes no earthshaking revelations or major contributions to the conversation about our new technologies, it is an accessible and engaging look at one way to move forward in negotiating daily life with the beast.

 

Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.

  • Leslie A. Wicke


Want to see more articles like this?
Support MR