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Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (2019)

Cal Newport (right) published a new Concept book, “Digital Minimalism,” PHOTO/ Michael Castaneda

By Michael Castaneda

Published: April 3rd, 2019

How many times have you looked at your phone today? Ten minutes? 30 minutes? 90 minutes? There an app for that. It’s called Moment. It tracks how often you are looking at your phone. According to Cal Newport’s notes from the app developer Kevin Holesh, an advantaged person checks their phone 40 times a day and spends about three hours a day doing it.

I believe in free will and the free market. I believe that if someone wants to look at their phone all day they have the right to because it is a free choice that they make. Do you agree with me?

Newport might not and this is why. A few years ago Silicon Valley insiders started to come out of the woodwork to confess that your addition to your phone was a carefully thought out and designed feature to bait and switch you by giving you a powerful communication device and then making sure that your eyes will never leave it.

Look up Tristan Harris who a is former Google engineer. He was featured in an Anderson Cooper 60 Minutes special called ‘Brain Hacking’. Here Harris explains that smartphones with its apps is designed as an addiction machine. They studied the gambling industry to see how slot machines are designed to keep people gambling and used that information to design phone apps to capture our attention and never let it go. Bill Maher compared this to Tobacco companies designing cigarettes to make them more addictive. You can find out more about this in a 2016 Atlantic article titled “inertia.”

When I read this I thought, how could this happen? Surely our business killing over regulated government would never allow this to happen. They would arrest this practice as soon as it appears. However, according to the New York Times, social media companies and gun companies are treated as neutral under the law. Each has caused deaths of innocent people, but the law takes the stand that the company of the product that produced a vehicle to kill people are not at fault. It like Charleston Heston, former movie star and former NRA president said, a gun in the hands of a good is no threat to anyone. I believe that to be true except there are a lot of bad people out there and many of them have guns. 

Take this a step further. As Newport points out Silicon Valley hacks your brain to keep your focus on your phone. In a New York Times article on March 15, 2019, titled “A Mass Murder of, and for the Internet” states: “But we do know that the design of internet platforms can create and reinforce extremist beliefs. Their recommendation algorithms often steer users toward edgier content, a loop that results in more time spent on the app, and more advertising revenue for the company.”

The attention economy has a body count. Before this was funny. We had people walking into traffic and walking off ledges when Pokémon Go was first released. It seemed like you could point to a few idiots who took an innocuous game to too far. But there was a darker side, in 2014, there was a Korean couple that killed their own baby by neglect because they were playing a video game about taking care of a baby. Ok, maybe that was an isolated incident. Now we just had 50 people killed in New Zealand by a white supremacist terrorist act. A few months earlier on US soil at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh there was another internet-fueled white supremacist terrorist act that killed 11 people. The New Zealand shooter praised the Pittsburgh shooter and Donald Trump.

The point is that people aren’t becoming more extreme because of the Internet. That is too simple. People are becoming more extreme and violent because algorithms take people off the deep end and the social media environment is set up so that you never stop looking at your device.

This is most likely done with machine learning algorithms.

How do can you escape that, while keeping the stuff you love. Newport has a plan for that. Digital Minimalism is a Concept book. Concept book is genre of their own. You will see them in business reviews which have titles like “50 books that every CEO has read.” In fact, Newport’s last book Deep Work, was heavily listed amongst those.

The way to read a Concept book is to read the first chapter carefully then never read the rest of the book. It usually goes like this, someone has a cool insight about our modern world. It makes sense. Then each chapter after that tries to support the first chapter. Sometimes it gets really bad. Someone will mention how a particular SpongeBob episode supports their life hack which the author thinks will totally change your life for the better.

Given that should we just read the first chapter of this Concept book by Newport, and not the rest? We could totally do that right? Maybe just read the first chapter at the Bookstore. Brooklyn is one of the few places in the world that actually has bookstores.

Actually no. Like most Concept book authors, Newport has a successful blog, www.calnewport.com. But unlike, those guys who left their administrative latent job they hated to become a blogger. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University with an Ph.D. from MIT and undergrad from Dartmouth (see the article on academic admission as to why top universities count). He’s been writing books since his undergraduate days exploring how people get really cool work done. Unlike a contemporary, for example, Malcolm Gladwell, who is a journalist and that medium is obvious in his wonderful writing. Newport is an academic, and transforms this modern genre of a Concept book into a rigorous study of the topic at hand.

Newport describes the possible perils of the iPhone society, but he finds a way out.  Being a computer scientist, he is not anti-technology. 

Having recently gone to one of Digital Minimalism book tour stops at Company Store in Manhattan, I got to see first hand that Cal Newport has a small set of groupies. Given this, he gave out on an experiment to have people digitally declutter their life lives for 30 days and only bring back those services that they felt had value. I was sitting next to a 24-year-old web developer who was part of this project. He was really into watching sports, any sport presented on a screen. Curling is fun, right?

He spoke about having an existential crisis as he looked into the dark void of being and nothingness.  It was severely anxiety provoking.  He couldn’t finish the challenge.  My new friend was not alone.  The book speaks to many situations where this happened.  

My favorite was there was a woman took off most of her apps except the most basic ones.  She kept the weather app and kept checking the weather and even the weather in the city that she did not live in because he had to satisfy the compulsion to check her phone often.  Another woman bought a wristwatch because she used her phone as a clock but once she had her phone out all the other goodies became too irresistible.   

Newport spends most of the book examining how to become a person again.  He explores the philosophy of personhood and living a good life. He gives practical and didactic instruction on how to regain mastery of your phone instead of having your phone be the master of you. We like to think of technology as being beyond good and evil. That may not be the case. It depends on the design. Nevertheless, we are human, all too human. In the words of a title of another great book, Humans are underrated.

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