In ‘Digital Minimalism,’ computer scientist Cal Newport argues that smartphones are robbing us of real-world connection. He also has a way to fix it.
Technology improves our lives until it doesn’t. As our phones and internet connections provides us with access to everything — friends, family, knowledge, email, work, videos of people falling down — we embrace the sheer usefulness of it and then, before we realize it, become wildly dependent on it. And the big, not-so-hidden secret is that the devices we use are designed to be addictive, to keep us scrolling, swiping, checking inboxes and wondering what messages we’ve missed, what game levels remain for us to clear, or what funny/inspiring/blood-boiling tweets have gone unread. There’s no denying how wonderful technology is; there’s also no denying that there will come a time in the not-so-distant future that we will look back and wonder how all of us — including our kids — got duped into depending on it for everything,
This is what Cal Newport argues in his new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown and previously wrote the acclaimed Deep Work about how to work productively in a noisy, distraction-prone world. Newport understands that technology is important but also understands that moderation is key in making sure it doesn’t infiltrate and ruin every part of our lives. In Digital Minimalism, he discusses how the Internet became the time-sucking platform it is today, in part engendered by mega-companies like Facebook creating systems that encourage people to “fall backwards” into addictive behaviors like checking their phone hundreds of times a day as well what that addiction takes away from our daily lives. He then offers a solution: No, not taking a hammer to all your technology and moving to a cabin in the woods, but a 30-day detox that cuts out all non-essential technology for the sake of decluttering your brain and engineering a less dependent relationship.
Fatherly spoke to Cal, who is also a dad, about the tight, solitude-banishing hold of technology, how to loosen its grip, and why the “phone-in-foyer” rule is essential for raising kids that have a healthy relationship with their devices and the Internet itself.
You write persuasively about technology’s utility but also the danger it presents. What is the clearest danger of tech and social media that you’ve seen?
I think one of the effects that seems to be increasingly clear is that digital interaction — clicking ‘like,’ leaving a comment, or putting that heart button next to an Instagram post — doesn’t have nearly the same reward as a real-world conversation. One of the big issues we’re seeing is that people are increasingly replacing real-world conversations with digital interactions. The latter is easier, but people end up more lonely, less social. Their relationships are frayed. The idea that tech is helping us become more connected has, paradoxically, actually given us the opposite effect: pushing more of our social lives to digital interactions has greatly impoverished our social lives.
Despite all this, we’re compelled to continue using tech. How do social media creators keep us hungry for a fix?
In general, the low-quality but algorithmically optimized digital stream that comes at us through our screens will always be easier than almost everything else. All of those quality activities that we associate with a life well lived, like actually talking with your family or doing an activity that requires some skill — are harder.
The confusing thing is, if you look at the activity you’re doing on your screens, it’s not that it is in isolation, terrible. It’s not like smoking a cigarette is the same as liking an Instagram post. But the real effect that people are having is what screen time is taking away from them. Screen time replaces activities that were much more rewarding and satisfying. It’s like when fast food first arrived and people started losing their great food cultures. As these companies became better and better at capturing our attention, they inadvertently began pushing out of people’s lives the slightly harder, but much more rewarding activities, that we have always, before, relied on to make a good life.
A quick glance at the phone, which maybe only takes 10 seconds, can diminish the quality, for a long period of time surrounding that glance, of the experience you’re trying to have.
What research shocked you the most when you were writing this book?
I was really surprised to learn the degree to which we have to spend time alone with our thoughts, not reacting to thoughts of other people. And how big of an unexpected problem it’s become that smartphones and wireless internet has made it possible to banish every moment of solitude from your life. You can go your whole day without ever being alone with your own thoughts. We’ve taken solitude for granted, because it used to be impossible to avoid. Now that we’re experimenting with what happens when you get rid of solitude, we’re finding it’s not good. The experiment is having bad outcomes. We really do need that boredom.
Being bored and able to exist without the crutch of a phone, especially for kids, builds resilience and self-reliance. Resilient people are comfortable with their own thoughts. They’re comfortable being bored. They don’t need to distract themselves to get by.
As a parent, I’m a big believer that the phone goes on the table in the foyer. If there’s something you need to do on the phone, go do that in the foyer, stand there by the front door, look up the thing you need to look up, or do the text conversation later. Leave it there. Don’t have it with you. To me, that’s really important. Don’t model the constant companion lifestyle to kids. I think that kids pick this up. Like, what is this thing? Even my nine-month-old notices the glowing thing. It can’t be good. So I’m a big believer in foyer-phone-parenting.
What do you think about the fact that we spend about an average of an hour a day on our phones?
Just with Facebook products, you’re losing up to an hour a day. As soon as people start looking at how often they look at their phone in general, those numbers get quite astronomical. It’s in the many-hundreds throughout the day.
The raw number of minutes is a little bit less important than the fragmenting effect. It’s the fact that a quick glance at the phone, which maybe only takes 10 seconds, can diminish the quality, for a long period of time surrounding that glance, of the experience you’re trying to have. It’s not that it’s just a time diminisher.
Facebook had to somehow convince people to look at their phone all the time. This wasn’t the original model.
To some extent, it feels like living with constant fragmentation and distraction — and coming up with tools to manage that — is our new reality. Do you think that’s accurate?
What’s worth emphasizing is how new and arbitrary this behavior is. We made peace with the idea that the smartphone is supposed to be a constant companion, but it’s just been like this for the past five or six years. Everyone has this harried look like they’re an EMT and they have to keep up with everything.
So the FOMO of digital social media is new?
This really came initially from the Facebook IPO. Their investors said, “This is great. You built your user base. Now we need our 100x return so that we can get a big IPO. And to get a big IPO you have to get your revenue numbers up.” Facebook had to somehow convince people to look at their phone all the time. This wasn’t the original model.
Facebook engineered the social media experience into this experience that’s an oncoming stream of social approval indicators, and every time you click on the app, there are likes and auto-tags for your photos and selective stories that show peaks of emotion. That was all manufactured. Facebook needed you to look at your phone a lot more, for their IPO to succeed, so their investors could get their return on investment.
That’s true. We tend to look at these as benevolent information systems, when in reality they are private companies that need to make a profit, so they’ll engage in profit-motivated behaviors that will keep people viewing ads. So the decisions they make are motivated by that, not by connecting people, as they so claim.
[The backlash against tech] isn’t about utility. It’s about autonomy. How much time are you looking at the screen? It’s so much more than is healthy or useful. It’s almost like tech companies have shot themselves in the foot. They were so effective at getting people to keep looking at the screen that people are noticing. People are stepping back and saying ‘Why do we have to do this? I didn’t use to look at this thing all day. What exactly am I getting out of this? It’s not nearly the benefits that they were told.’
So this brings us to what you call digital minimalism. If I wanted to become a follower of your philosophy, what would I do?
Digital minimalism, like any minimalism movement, just says, “Let’s press pause and start from scratch.” We built up our digital lives haphazardly. A lot of us aren’t happy with it. So the right thing to do is to clear all the stuff out and then rebuild a digital life from scratch, a lot more carefully.
Get rid of all of the clutter in your digital life. Start from scratch. Say, ‘What do I really care about?’ And then you rebuild your digital life from scratch, but this time, you do it in a much more intentional way. So that’s no more anti-technology, than, say, what Marie Kondo has people do with their closets. She’s not anti-clothes. It’s not about technology being good or bad. Having intention is better than lack of intention.
We built up our digital lives haphazardly. A lot of us aren’t happy with it. So the right thing to do is to clear all the stuff out and then rebuild a digital life from scratch, a lot more carefully.
So how does someone do a 30-day tech cleanse?
The key about the process is it’s not about a detox, it’s a declutter. For 30 days, every optional technology in your personal life, you take a break from. All social media, reading news online, video games, anything that is optional that claims your time and attention. It’s like you’re decluttering your “house.” When your 30 days is over, you say: I’ve had enough space. I’ve had enough time away from all of this. And then you rebuild your digital life.
You do a very careful process, before you bring anything back in, of asking: ‘Is this the best way to use technology to help something I really value?’ If the answer is yes, great. Then you say: ‘What are the rules for how I use this?’ Some of that stuff will come back and some of it won’t. It depends on what you value. But you’re cleaning all that junk out. After you do that, you ask what you want on your shelves.
Do you think we’ll still be on Facebook or Google in 30 years? Or that there will be regulatory laws against addictive tech design?
I know people in the space who think there is some magic bullet that is regulatory. But I haven’t really found it. I think will be a cultural shift that will make the big difference. The idea we have now, that it’s good, or necessary, to have a small number of 500 million dollar companies that basically have their own private version of the internet, like Facebook does — that’s a weird idea. I think people are waking up to the notion of not knowing if we need Facebook to build its own internet that we all have to use, and it watches everything we do.
From a parenting perspective, my read of the literature is that almost certainly in the next three to four years, there will be a big shift in people’s willingness to allow their kids and teens to have access to smartphones and social media. That’s going to go away.
Google won’t go away. They solve a problem. I need to search for something and they do that well. Facebook does’t solve a major problem that anyone has. I’ve worked with lots of people who have left Facebook, and it’s really not an issue. People are using it mainly out of momentum. It’s crazy to have a 500 million dollar company for which the user base mainly exists on momentum and laziness. It’s an incredibly dispensable thing in most people’s lives but it’s one of the biggest companies in the country. I don’t know if we’ve ever had something so dispensable and so valuable at the same time.