Like many self-help books, Digital Minimalism can feel repetitive, and readers with an interest in the social impacts of technology will likely be familiar with many of the thinkers and studies he quotes. His arguments are compelling, however. A few months ago, my toddler deleted Facebook from my phone and it’s embarrassing how liberated I felt. After finishing Newport’s book, I set strict rules for how often I check social media, my emails or my text messages, and even these baby steps made a surprising difference by improving my concentration span. For purists such as Boyle, such efforts might seem pathetic and quietist (certainly they do nothing to address his very valid economic and environmental concerns), but when you accept there is no returning to a past golden age, you need to find a way to feel comfortable in the present.
This thoughtful blend of self-help and social critique has a provocative premiss: the “wild tangle of tools, entertainments and distractions provided by the internet age” is threatening to “subvert our human urge to build a meaningful and satisfying life”. Ever since the New York Sun was launched for a penny in 1830, media companies have sought to garner the attention of the public and sell it on to advertisers. According to the computer scientist Cal Newport, by engineering a seemingly “irresistible attraction” to their services, tech giants like Facebook are supercharging the “attention economy”, turning us in to incredibly lucrative product. His book is addressed to those who spend more time than “is healthy” checking gadgets and apps, “unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table”.
Some of Newport’s suggestions are useful and some are a bit lame... Newport’s proposed solutions are useful, but hardly revolutionary... Then it gets a bit woolly... I’m afraid I’ve made Newport sound like a bit of a nerk. And, really, the man does use some absurd jargon towards the end of the book. Yet for the most part it’s pretty well written. And if his practical suggestions sound a bit obvious, well, what else are you going to do? If you want to spend less time with your phone, this book isn’t a bad place to start.