It’s rare that a book grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. It’s even more rare when that book is, essentially, a self-help book. But what if that self-help manual tells a profound truth about one’s culture and times in a way that no one else seems to be able to? Then it becomes a manifesto, a call to a new way of life.
This is exactly what Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism is. And the philosophy of Digital Minimalism, far from being some lifestyle fad, is integral to culture creators and culture consumers alike.
The Issue of Time
None of us are getting any younger. That point was driven home to recently as I did an important, and rather shocking, exercise. As part of employing new strategies to carve out time for writing, I paid attention to how I spent every minute of my day for an entire week. The results were shocking. It turned out that during my most productive days, I still spent over two hours of my work day mindlessly scrolling through social media.
On days when I didn’t have enough sleep or something threw me off my routine, the number rose to 4 or 5 hours. And I’m, generally speaking, pretty careful about protecting my work time from external distractions. And this doesn’t even include the countless times I picked up my phone to check on some update. Even in the middle of putting my kids to sleep. Or even in between prayers!
Worse than the simple waste of time doing essentially nothing was a frightening fact. My brain had been trained to employ any and all free time not in anything useful or enriching or edifying. Every moment of free time was subsumed in an obsessive reaching for my pocket, reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins during his “butter scraped over too much bread” days.
That meant that I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t praying or writing. I wasn’t even being present for my family. My attention was enslaved. How could I ever hope to achieve anything greater than triviality, much less make a dent in the great endeavor of our time–the reinvigoration of culture?
It’s Not (Entirely) Technology’s Fault
Too often we traditionalists choose the easiest scapegoat of all–progress and technology–to blame for all our woes. That’s an important subject for discussion, one that I won’t approach here in detail. I will only say that I am not convinced that technology is at fault. There are two factors at work in making many of us obsessive humans incapable of culture creation:
- Man’s unnatural tendencies toward using things obsessively and
- External manipulation by large corporations who make money off of our distracted state.
The first of these is a reality of the Fall. I think this is well-covered by a recent book by the philosopher Jean-Claude Larchet, as well as many other culture commentators far more erudite than I. For the purposes of this post, I will simply assume that we all have an unnatural tendency to abuse objects when our natural passions are disordered. Unchecked, such a tendency is destructive on all fronts.
But somewhat more to our point is the second factor–the external manipulation of our distraction. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport convincingly shows how social networks morphed from being actual meeting places for people to multi-billion dollar corporations who traffic in human attention. In fact, he says it straight out. Ever minute that you spend aimlessly wandering through the internet, especially on your smartphone, you are putting money into the pockets of people who care nothing for culture creation or for your edification. No matter what they might say.
The mere fact that Steve Jobs himself never intended the iPhone to be a computer in your pocket, or that he didn’t let his kids use either iPhones or iPads, is telling. The addictive nature of your smart phone is similar in design and effectiveness to slot machines! Anyone who ever gets caught mindlessly scrolling the endless facebook news feed knows what I’m talking about. Worse than this, it is a true addiction. The effect on the brain is a slight dopamine hit from the anticipation of a small reward. Not the reward itself. Meaning what? It’s an itch that can never be fully scratched.
This is a Very Serious Problem
It has already been demonstrated that people read online differently than on paper. There are compelling reasons to believe that people’s ability to read slowly and deeply is being affected by reliance on this kind of skim-reading. The effects on both culture creators and consumers can be profound. There are certain experiences of profound personal transformation through deep reading and work that cannot be achieved by a quick, summary encounter with text.
As for culture creators, their own inability to read deeply can affect their ability to produce transformational content. A bad reader will always a bad writer make.
A recent article on the Imaginative Conservative offers some specific ideas about the destructive results of this modern obsession:
- People don’t make time to wander in God’s creation. The physical benefits of this are well-documented. The spiritual ones are even more profound. And no writer or content creator will ever come up with new ideas if he or she doesn’t take time for long walks in silence.
- The deterioration of literature and art. This I’ll be speaking about more in later posts.
- The deterioration of language itself. This isn’t merely bad grammar. It’s a growing inability to express one’s ideas with precision. Instead, we fling insults and say stupid things like “agree to disagree”.
- Elimination of free time. Creativity needs solitude and freedom for the mind to wander and make unexpected connections.
- The fear of solitude. Without solitude, you can’t encounter God. You can’t have unexpected, brilliant ideas. Internal contradictions turn into neuroses and anxiety. No surprise depression and suicide are on a consistent rise in our progressive society.
So what is Digital Minimalism? In Cal Newport’s words:
Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. . . . digital minimalism is . . . about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices. (252–53)
Here are some practical suggestions that I myself have implemented after reading Digital Minimalism. My life and my creative output are the better for it. Ask my wife and kids. They noticed a change in me immediately.
- Take a 30-day complete digital fast
- Reintroduce technology carefully, considering necessity, not personal satisfaction
- Schedule internet use in advance, limiting it to small windows in your day
- Get rid of your Facebook feed
- Get rid of all social networks that are non-essential (for me, that’s Twitter)
- Take off all apps from your smartphone (for me, that’s everything but Audible, Google Podcasts, and my Kindle app)
- Schedule time for non-digital activities such as walking, reading, and writing
I’ve listed these here without commentary for a purpose. I recommend you all pick up a copy of Digital Minimalism to find out the details. I hope that you all can see that this is a necessary first step for both culture creators and culture consumers. Without the ability to pay attention, we may as well declare defeat before we’ve even started.
If you’d like to sample Cal Newport’s ideas before buying the book, here’s a good podcast episode where he covers much of the book’s message.
This blog is dedicated to finding ways, in the past and the present, to preserve, nourish, and cultivate Christian culture for our new age of post-Christian relativism. If you’d like to join me in this journey of discovery, sign up to receive my newsletter, in which I will share additional content about the state of culture today and stories of people who are laboring to make the world a more beautiful place.
And come hear me talk about creating Christian culture in a post-Christian age at the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference this June!