Last Monday I entered a wide corporate lobby with marbled floors and an imposing security desk. In midtown Manhattan on the second floor lies a kind of open floor plan tech campus home of Company. The backdrop of the event’s stage were gilded age windows dramatically highlighting Grand Central station with the crown of the Chrysler building glowing behind. It was here I had the pleasure of seeing a dialogue with Cal Newport on the eve of his recent book release Digital Minimalism. I was excited to attend and purchase an advanced copy of the book for a couple reason — chief among them that I’ve written on the topic myself.
There seems to be a strong current backlash to the influence of social media on our personal mindspace and in the public sphere. Hearing Newport’s take on the topic was like riding a wave of current media criticism. I first became familiar with Newport through his book Deep Work, a kind of holy book for remote & freelance workers who have to manage a lot of their own time distraction free. What I hadn’t considered was that even in Deep Work he was advocating for a kind of digital moderation. Something he pointed out on Monday. Interestingly enough the author is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown. He said on Monday that it’s perhaps because of his close understanding of technology that he is skeptical of it’s inherent benevolence.
Equally refreshing, however, was his insistence that we shouldn’t demonize technology either. He was quick to point out that technology isn’t like cigarettes. There is a lot of value in using technology for connection. Paraphrasing, “You can throw out a pack of cigarettes without much regret but you phone also has priceless photos of your family on it. This makes the choice a lot harder.” I really appreciate the levity here. Newport observed something I was able to find often when discussing digital frugalism which is that technology is often discussed in very black and white terms. It is either “bad” or “good” for society.
I’m eager to read the book as part of it discusses a group of participants going through a “digital diet.” He joked on Monday about being called the “Marie Kondo of digital media.” This is because to attempt a digital diet one must throw out or cut back severely and then gently reintroduce. The analogy is to Kondo’s method of first moving everything out of the closet then putting it back in rather than taking things out one by one. Newport acknowledged that gradually minimizing doesn’t often have a lasting effect. Newport told a few anecdotes about participants in the digital diet and one of a man who was cut off from technology for 8 years and missed the social media take over of society. Both were, when introduced back into the current digital landscape, quite bewildered. Newport mocked a scrolling motion on an invisible phone in his hand. “This action is pretty unnatural when you think about it but we just accept it.” It’s only by stepping back and examining that we can get a long view on our habits.
What was perhaps most interesting for the audience was how optimistic Newport was about the future and our relationship to technology — a point that even put him a bit at odds with some of the more militant contingent in the audience. He referenced material by Jonathan Haidt another academic studying the effects of technology specifically in the classroom. Haidt noted that it only takes three students in a class to be the tipping point for the rest of the class to self regulate phone usage. There are still areas in life like in a theater for example where use of a smartphone is widely shunned. Newport also noted a tendency for younger people who “grew up with social media” to revolt and ditch their social media accounts. He believes that Facebook and Twitter have much to fear about their current centricity in our media landscape as these younger people reconsider the situation.
Market forces prior to Facebook’s IPO according to Newport were what shifted the focus to algorithms over general social sharing. One of my favorite observations of his was the separation of the social web from social media. He’s keen to point out that he derives benefit from having a platform to blog on. There’s an important kind of discussion that can happen that in the early web was often touted as pro-democratic. But somewhere we gave over our autonomy to algorithms instead of personal taste. This is, I believe, the crux of our current digital moment: Can we cleave the widely beneficial social nature of the web from the algorithmic addictive nature of the platforms that gave and continue to give us fake news? Only time and future generations will tell.