Digital Minimalism

A Q+A with the computer scientist Cal Newport, about his new book Digital Minimalism, why future workplaces may go email-free, and why tech backlash is about to go mainstream.

In 2004, when Cal Newport was still an undergrad at Dartmouth, all his friends were making accounts on a new website called Facebook. Newport opted out. This was not the moral or political objection it might be today. “There was very little scary about 2004 Facebook,” he says. His reasons were twofold. One, he has always disliked listing his favorite things, and back then Facebook “was this presentation of self-fame: ‘Here’s my favorite movies, my favorite books.’” Two, he had, not long before, shut down a tech company he’d started during the dot com boom. He wasn’t exactly jazzed, then, that all of his buddies were so excited about this Zuckerberg guy’s project. “There was probably a little bit of petty jealousy,” Newport says. “Like: ‘Oh why is his company so popular? I’m not gonna give him the satisfaction of using his product.’”

Well, anyone who says jealousy doesn’t serve you should speak to Newport. Because that vendetta ended up giving him a unique perspective: While everyone else was sucked up in the ultra-connected, social media vortex, Newport maintained his distance. As Facebook’s presence mushroomed exponentially, Newport found himself watching and wondering, why are people so into this?

Those seeds of doubt grew into a hearty techno-skepticism that inspired both his hit 2016 book Deep Work (about the merits of mono-tasking and deep concentration in a world of constant distraction) and his newest release: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. It presents a “philosophy of technology use” rooted in reclaiming control and intention back from the devices and platforms that have hijacked it.

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