Digital Minimalism

June 13, 2019    notes

To this end, Newport reflects on three core practices now crowded out by our overuse of technology: solitude, conversation, and leisure. He follows Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in defining solitude as the absence of “input from other minds,” noting that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to completely deprive ourselves of solitude. Through digital declutter, we are reacquainted with our own thoughts and feelings, an admittedly disquieting proposition for many of us. Newport, in fact, commends to us the exercise of writing letters to our future selves as a way of initiating that process.

But the best way to find solitude is, quite simply, by walking alone. Newport pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s time at the Soldiers’ Home cottage in North DC as a reprieve from the busyness of the White House, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche’s long sojourns in the Italian Alps. These times of withdrawal provided both men the space and time necessary to make hard decisions and produce great works. As Newport puts it, we need solitude to flourish, for “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” Likewise, Henry David Thoreau, one of Newport’s constant companions, would walk to town rather than using a horse and wagon, thus exemplifying technological minimalism. In fact, Thoreau calculated how the hours it took him to walk from Walden pond to Concord offset the amount of labor hours it would have taken him to afford the wagon. Tragically, we have surrendered this calculus, Newport argues, to the purveyors of the attention economy. We’ve traded our souls for a few small conveniences, and we need long periods of solitude to recenter the self that is now scattered across the digital landscape.

With respect to conversation, Newport distinguishes between high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth communication. He argues that conversation is a high-bandwidth form of communication that is far more suited to our evolutionary development as social beings than the salvos of data with which social media pummel us. How ironic, Newport notes, that our fixation with the “like” button prevents us from truly knowing what we like. By liking another, we fail to know others. Indeed, by depriving ourselves of face-to-face contact with others, we widen the sea of angst that no amount of “likes” can ever hope to bridge. This phenomenon is borne out by research into college-age students, who experienced a radical increase in anxiety-related disorders around 2011, the same year that smartphones became widely available to consumers and teenagers began owning their own phones.