Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport


Georgetown University’s Cal Newport is back with another book, Digital Minimalism, which extends his outlook on doing more meaningful work in an increasingly distracting world. 

Digital Minimalism is one-part manifesto and one-part popular science. In essence, it is a discourse on the critical disadvantages of constant connectivity and the advantages of being intentional about using today’s technologies. By documenting several studies as well as anecdotal examples of how mobile applications and social media have become deeply interwoven into the fabric of society, Newport makes an excellent case for minimizing the usage of most things digital to (a) break free from screens and (b) regain control of intentionality in communication. Newport contends that finding tools for a problem at hand is a far superior strategy to first gathering tools for hypothetical future issues. This philosophy resonates throughout the book and in particular, hits home concerning today’s smartphone ecosystem, with countless (many unnecessary) mobile applications and innumerable (unconscious) sign-ups for the shiniest new social media platform. 

Newport, unsurprisingly, goes quite deep into providing concrete examples of methods and strategies for assimilating into the digital minimalist’s mindset. Newport showcases read-later apps and blocking apps, but most effectively, demonstrates how social media companies prey on addictive tendencies to develop their platforms (swipe down for refresh = slot machine; bright red notifications, etc.) The book details many suggestions and techniques to offset such tactics and lists the many disadvantages of continually glancing at Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately, Newport asks us to reclaim our time because “our time = their money.” In doing so, he delivers a stark warning about the impact of addictive digital media in today’s attention economy.

At the same time, Newport, who is a computer scientist by profession, also emphasizes that digital minimalism is not an anti-technology movement. The book outlines why careful curation and consideration of apps, as well as their intentional usage, can actually elevate efficiency and efficacy in the workplace (“dumb down your smartphone”). Much of this builds on concepts described in Newport’s earlier book, Deep Work. Concerning the minimization of screens altogether, Digital Minimalism goes a step beyond Deep Work’s ethos of emphasizing “value in boredom” and contains an additional dimension of focus: leisure. Newport pulls together examples of how ‘leisure’ activities, which is easily distanced from the activity of endless scrolling on an app, can contribute to wellbeing and how technology itself can foster such ‘crafty’ activities. 

It’s at this end of the book where I felt that Newport begins to meander and briefly loses sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps unwillingly, the tone morphs into one with a somewhat preachy demeanor and extols the virtues of activities that do not appeal to most readers (e.g., Crossfit) nor extend to their day-to-day realities (e.g., emphasis on handiwork), and importantly aren’t relevant to the message at hand. At times I also felt that the balance between scaremongering and hard facts became fuzzier than at a comfortable level. 

Regardless of these setbacks, Digital Minimalism is an important book on an important topic. Whereas Deep Work was a tour de force on honing intentionality in the workplace, Digital Minimalism is Newport’s effort to extend this perspective to overall wellbeing and personal nourishment. By highlighting some alarming ongoing trends in digital addiction as well as offering tangible solutions to minimize screen use, Digital Minimalism is a compelling read.

[Thanks to Chris Maupin for gifting me a copy of this book!]