Recently a particularly sophisticated woman and I were discussing how to value technology and how to value time.
She had been general counsel for some of the world’s largest resource companies, and had spent a career advising on mining technology patents.
Time was something she apparently had a lot of, which seemed bizarre given she managed over sixty staff and had four children, but she had very clear views on working smarter, not harder.
The conversation was going well until she suggested I read “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”, a new book by Cal Newport.
The phrase sounded so grossly new age that I felt like she had told me to go vegan, do more yoga, and drink more water all at once.
“Smartphones will end up like cigarettes,” she insisted. “People will take them off their kids, and every technological interaction will be deliberate. They’ll avoid harmful apps and only use the helpful ones.”
She said it would be like refusing to eat McDonald’s, avoiding smoking and only drinking good quality wine.
Cal Newport’s book rejects the idea that if you acquire more things that bring you benefits, you’ll simply have more total benefits. That is called maximalism.Why is it a thing?
As the internet’s proliferation gathered pace in the 1990s, people rarely stopped and asked, how much life time they were trading in order to get the potential benefit of a new technology … and whether it was worth it.
Social media has become the most voracious time-sucker in the modern world. And this 'trade-off thinking' prompts people to consider whether they want to spend time and attention on low value things - like scrolling through a feed - when they could be doing high value things - like hanging with their dog, figuring out how to make rhubarb taste okay or getting their side hustle happening.
Newport predicts digital minimalism will increase in popularity, just like food and fitness have.
The explosion of highly processed fast food in the 20th Century saw a rapid increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Just like the explosion of social media apps and their addictive qualities have lead to rising rates of teenage depression, self harm and general anti-social anxiety.
At first, we tried to deal with our health and fitness problems using tips and general awareness, but messages around “try to eat better and exercise more” didn’t change people’s habits, they just made them feel guilty.
However, the introduction of named philosophies (veganism, paleo, F45, Barre) provided a set of values that people could adhere to. Their existence acknowledged there was a real health problem and the forces behind it were too strong for just good intentions and advice to solve it. People thought about it and adopted a philosophy that sat well with them. They also wanted to band together to combat it.
This, Newport argues, is how digital minimalism is evolving. People have read those stories about turning off notifications, they know too much screen time disrupts their sleep and even though the glossy curated Instagrammers aren’t great for self esteem, they find it difficult to stop the mindless scroll.
And the demand for a solution - for a practical way to readjust your behaviour - is real. It’s something I notice in friends all over the place. I don’t like realising forty minutes has gone by and I’m not sure how I spent it. I don’t like talking to a friend while he’s absently scrolling Facebook as well.
Digital minimalism is a clear philosophy that’s based on your own values. It’s not dissimilar to an investment strategy, my digitally minimal companion said, somewhat slyly, knowing I would perk up at anything investment related.
“To maximise the amount of value you feel in your life, you want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the smallest number of things that give you outsized rewards.
“Apply that to your technology habits. And the rewards will be health and time.” Sure, easy.
Keep a clear head everyone and enjoy your week!
P.S. The header images are cartoons by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski called "Surgery, "Control" and "Islands".