Tag: Cal Newport

Cal Newport on the dangers of ‘techno-maximalism’

I have to say that I was not expecting to enjoy Cal Newport’s book Deep Work when I read it a couple of years ago. As someone who’s always been fascinated by technology, and who has spent most of his career working in and around it, I assume it was going to contain the approach of a Luddite working in his academic ivory tower.

It turns out I was completely wrong in this assumption, and the book was one of the best I read in 2017. Newport is back with a new book that I’ve eagerly pre-ordered called Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology. It comes out next week. Again, the title is something that would usually be off-putting to me, but it’s hard to argue about the points that he makes in his blog posts since Deep Work.

As you would expect with a new book coming out, Newport is doing the rounds of interviews. In one with GQ magazine, he talks about the dangers of ‘digital maximalism’, which he defines in the following way:

The basic idea is that technological innovations can bring value and convenience into your life. So, you assess new technological tools with respect to what value or convenience it can bring into your life. And if you can find one, then the conclusion is, “If I can afford it, I should probably have this.” It just looks at the positives. And it’s view is “more is better than less,” because more things that bring you benefits means more total benefits. This is what maximalism is: “If there’s something that brings value, you should get it.”

That type of thinking is dangerous, as:

We see these tools, and we have this narrative that, “You can do this on Facebook,” or “This new feature on this device means you can do this, which would be convenient.” What you don’t factor in is, “Okay, well what’s the cost in terms of my time attention required to have this device in my life?” Facebook might have some particular thing that’s valuable, but then you have the average U.S. user spending something like 50 minutes a day on Facebook products. That’s actually a pretty big [amount of life] that you’re now trading in order to get whatever the potential small benefit is.

[Maximalism] ignores the opportunity cost. And as Thoreau pointed out hundreds of years ago, it’s actually in the opportunity cost that all the interesting math happens.

Newport calls for a new philosophy of technology which includes things like ‘digital minimalism’ (the subject of his new book):

Digital minimalism is a clear philosophy: you figure out what’s valuable to you. For each of these things you say, “What’s the best way I need to use technology to support that value?” And then you happily miss out on everything else. It’s about additively building up a digital life from scratch to be very specifically, intentionally designed to make your life much better.

There might be other philosophies, just like in health in fitness. More important to me than everyone becoming a digital minimalist, is people in general getting used to this idea that, “I have a philosophy that’s really clear and grounded in my values that tells me how I approach technology.” Moving past this ad-hoc stage of like, “Whatever, I just kind of signed up for maximalist stage,” and into something a little bit more intentional.

I’ve never really the type of person to go to a book club, but what with this coming out and Company of One by Paul Jarvis arriving yesterday, perhaps I need to set up a virtual one?

Source: GQ

An app to close down your workday effectively

In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he talks about the importance of closing down your working day properly, so you can enjoy leisure time. Ovidiu Cherecheș, a developer, has built an web application called Jobs Done! to help with that:

This app is built on Cal Newport’s shutdown ritual concept from his book Deep Work.

The need for a shutdown ritual comes from the following (oversimplified) reasoning:

  1. Deep focus is invaluable for producing great work
  2. We can only sustain deep focus for a limited amount of hours per day
  3. To be able to focus deeply consistently our mind requires rest (ie. complete disconnect from work) between working sessions

It makes sense to me. So here’s how this app works:

You decide it’s time to call it a day.

You are guided through a set of (customizable) steps meant to relieve your mind from work-related thoughts. This often involves formalizing thoughts into tasks and creating a plan for tomorrow. Each step can have one more external links attached.

Then you say a “set phrase” out loud. This step is personal so choose a set phrase you resonate with. Verbalizing your set phrase “provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”

Finally, you’re presented an array of (customizable) pastime activities you could do to disconnect.

I think this is one of those things you use to get into the habit, and then you probably don’t need after that. Worth trying!

Source: Web app / Code

Social internet vs social media

It’s good to see Cal Newport, whose book Deep Work I found unexpectedly great last year, add a bit more nuance to his position on social media:

The young progressives grew up in a time when platform monopolies like Facebook were so dominant that they seemed inextricably intertwined into the fabric of the internet. To criticize social media, therefore, was to criticize the internet’s general ability to do useful things like connect people, spread information, and support activism and expression.

The older progressives, however, remember the internet before the platform monopolies. They were concerned to observe a small number of companies attempt to consolidate much of the internet into their for-profit, walled gardens.

To them, social media is not the internet. It was instead a force that was co-opting the internet — including the powerful capabilities listed above — in ways that would almost certainly lead to trouble.

Newport has started talking about the difference between ‘social media’ and the ‘social internet’:

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

If you’d asked people in 2005, they would have said that there was no way that people would leave MySpace in favour of a different platform.

People like Facebook. But if you could offer them a similar alternative that stripped away the most unsavory elements of Zuckerberg’s empire (perhaps funded by a Wikipedia-style nonprofit collective, or a modest subscription fee), many would happily jump ship.

Indeed.

Following up with another this post this week, Newport writes:

My argument is that you can embrace the social internet without having to become a “gadget” inside the algorithmic attention economy machinations of the social media conglomerates. As noted previously, I think this is the right answer for those who are fed up with the dehumanizing aspects of social media, but are reluctant to give up altogether on the potential of the internet to bring people together.

He suggests several ways for this to happen:

  • Approach #1: The Slow Social Media Philosophy
  • Approach #2: Own Your Own Domain

This is, in effect, the IndieWeb approach. However, I still think that Newport and others who work in universities may a special case. As Austin Kleon notes, there’s already built-in ways for your career to advance in academia. Others have to show their work…

What I don’t see being discussed is that as we collectively mature in our use of social media is that we’re likely to use different networks for different purposes. Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like try to force us into a single online identity. It’s OK to look and act differently when you’re around different people in different environments.

Source: Cal Newport (On Social Media and Its Discontents / Beyond #DeleteFacebook: More Thoughts on Embracing the Social Internet Over Social Media)