I only rarely write administrative posts, but because this is the launch week for my new book, I figured I’m due a break on this rule. With this in mind, I want to share a few more interesting pieces of news coverage on Digital Minimalism.
Second, if you’re pretty sure you’re going to buy the book, but haven’t yet, I want to nudge you to do so soon. (For various technical reasons, sales made before Saturday night are very useful from a bestseller list perspective. Okay, last time I’ll mention that…)
It’s hard for me to believe that we’re finally here, but my new book, Digital Minimalism, comes out on Tuesday.
The early buzz about the book has exceeded my expectations, which helps validate a trend that I’ve been noticing over the past year or so: people seem like they’re finally ready to consider serious changes to their relationship with digital tools.
To help get you as excited as I am, I’ve included below a sampling of some of the early press on the book.
How to Be a Digital Minimalist — The Rules (The Times of London). A sharp piece in The Times of London. Calls my new book an: “eloquent, powerful wail of despair against the ‘attention merchants’, but also an enjoyably practical guide to cutting back on screen time.”
Cal Newport Has an Answer for Digital Burnout (The Ezra Klein Show). My recent interview on the new book with Ezra Klein. For those eager for more podcast content from me, worry not, I am doing a lot of podcast interviews that will begin releasing next week.
I recently started re-watching old Mythbusters episodes with my two oldest boys — and we’re having a blast.
The original series, which ran on the Discovery Channel from 2006 to 2016, was hosted by special effects engineers Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Curious about what happened to Jamie and Adam after the series ended, I did a little poking around and discovered that among many other things, Adam became involved in the maker website Tested.com, which was rebranded as “Adam Savage’s Tested.”
This site hosts videos which are primarily a mix of high tech product reviews and instructions for maker projects. My oldest son and I, for example, got a kick out of watching a tutorial where Adam modified an off-the-shelf Nerf gun into a 1000-shot blaster (see above).
An issue that arises frequently in these queries is the ambiguous tension between the digital and the analog. I’ve been writing recently about the damage caused when low quality digital distraction push more meaningful and satisfying analog activities out of your life.
As I detail in Digital Minimalism, for example, one of the most commonly reported experiences from last year’s 1,600 person digital declutter experiment was the surprising joy of rediscovering leisure activities that used to be unexceptional, like reading random library books, knitting, or building something with your hands. Participants were often shocked to realize the degree to which these simple but fulfilling pasttimes had been pushed aside by mindless streaming and outraged commenting.
These observations seems to pit the analog against the digital. So how, then, do we think about Adam Savage’s Tested?
If you live in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India or Africa, you can pre-order the UK edition at Amazon UK. (The book is also being translated into over a dozen different languages, but these will come later.)
For multiple reasons, pre-orders are much more useful than normal sales, so if you were already thinking about buying my new book, I want to humbly nudge toward considering a pre-order, and if you already pre-ordered, I want to underscore my gratitude.
To demonstrate my sincere thanks to those who take the time to help my book in this manner, I’ve put together the following incentive packages:
If you pre-order 1 copy of the book before February 5th, you’ll receive:
A video tutorial, narrated by me, that provides an inside look at the specific productivity systems I use to organize my work week.
A standalone guide to the Digital Declutter process (as featured in the New York Timesand detailed in my book) that I recommend for transitioning into a digital minimalist lifestyle.
If you pre-order 2+ copies of the book (one for you and one for a friend) before February 5th, you’ll receive:
All of the above bonuses.
Access to the private Digital Minimalist Book Club. For one month after the book releases in February, I’ll be be posting a weekly private video for book club members where I answer their questions about the book (or any related topics), submitted through a special email address provided only to book club members.
Pre-order Digital Minimalism from any retailer and in any format. If you have already pre-ordered (thank you!), you just need to find your invoice number from the digital receipt.
Fill out THIS FORM with your invoice number(s) and contact details. (Note: If you ordered 2+ copies using multiple different orders, that’s no problem: the form can accept multiple invoice numbers.)
Gain immediate access to the bonuses. Once you’ve filled out the above form, links for downloading the bonuses will appear on the form’s confirmation page. For those of you who order 2+ copies, you’ll also be provided the special email address for submitting questions for the book club. The instructions for how to access the book club videos will then be emailed to you in February.
I’ve both read and written numerous articles about the negative aspects of the modern smartphone, and have interviewed many people who have returned to a simpler alternative with few regrets.
But what caught my attention about Savov’s piece was the following new (to me) argument he made in favor of stepping back from these devices:
“This is not as drastic a regression as you might think — or as it might have been a few years ago. In the age before paper-thin tablets and laptops, your smartphone truly was the only viable connected device you could carry around everywhere.
But nowadays? I have paper pads thicker and heavier than the Apple MacBook…[y]ou can tuck a tablet discreetly into a large jacket pocket, and it can connect to LTE networks.”
Like Proust’s Madeleine, this comment sparked in me memories of the early smartphone era; a time when laptops were large, bulky affairs and accessible WiFi connections scarce. In this context, a “smart” phone that might allow you to send an email or perform rudimentary document edits could significantly improve your productivity when away from the office.
But as Savov notes, there are now many other affordable, portable, connected devices that offer much better productivity experiences than even the largest phone.
So why do smartphones persist in a world where their original rationale has dissipated?
A phenomenon I noticed when researching Digital Minimalism is that many people are confused by the creeping unease they feel about their digital lives. This confusion is caused in part by problems of scope.
When you take an activity like social media, for example, and zoom in close, you isolate behaviors like commenting on a friend’s picture, or encountering an interesting link, that seem mildly positive. What harm could there possibly be in clicking a heart icon?
When you zoom out, however, the cumulative effect of all this swiping and tapping seems to add up to something distinctly negative. Few are happy, for example, after allowing yet another movie night to devolve into side-by-side iPad idling.
The dynamic at play here is that digital activities that are mildly positive in isolation, combine to crowd out other real world activities that are potentially much more satisfying. This is what allows you to love Twitter in the moment when you discover a hilarious tweet, but at the end of the day fear that the app is degrading your soul.
Understanding this dynamic is critical because it tells you that you cannot improve your life by focusing exclusively on digital tools. Triaging your apps, or cutting back phone time, will not by itself make you happier. You must also aggressively fill in the space this pruning creates with the type of massively satisfying, real world activities that these tools have been increasingly pushing out of your life.
It is with this in mind, and in the spirit of the New Year, that I suggest you make a simple resolution: join analog social media.
A friend recently pointed me toward an essay published on Medium in 2015. It’s written by Hossein Derakshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger who helped instigate the Persian-language blogging revolution during the first decade of the 21st century, and whose online truth-telling eventually lead to his imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison from 2008 to 2014.
In his essay, Derakshan explores the radical shift in internet culture that occurred between when he entered prison in 2008 and his release six years later. As Derakshan explains, in 2008, the source of the internet’s potency was the hyperlink:
“The hyperlink was my currency six years ago…[it] provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web…a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.”
If the hyperlink was “currency,” as Derakshan elaborates, then blogs were the market in which this currency was exchanged. You might start a web browsing session at a site you knew well, but a few dozen clicks later might find yourself at a novel corner of the blogosphere, digesting insights from a bright mind you would have never otherwise known existed.
As a public critic of social media, I’m often asked if my concerns extend to YouTube. This is a tricky question.
As I’ve written, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram didn’t offer something fundamentally different than the world wide web that preceded them. Their main contribution was to make this style of online life more accessible and convenient.
My first independently owned and operated web site from the 1990s, for example, required me to learn HTML and upload files to a server at a local ISP using FTP. Ten years later, expressing yourself online became as easy as using your student email address to open an account at thefacebook.com, and then answering some questions about your relationship status and favorite movies.
YouTube seems different.
Before it came along, there were not many options for individuals to publish original video content online. Now this can be done for free with the click of a button, which is an important shift. Many content creators I know see the democratization of video as a force that’s shaping up to be as disruptive to traditional media as the preceding arrival of web sites.
And yet, at the same time, many of the people I spoke with while researching Digital Minimalism admitted that idle YouTube browsing is devouring more and more of their discretionary time, and they’re not happy about it.
So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?
The best answer I can come up with for now is both.
On the positive side,video is powerful. Enabling more people to create and publish video will therefore unleash powerful creative innovation. (It will also, of course, enable the creation of more insipid and brain-dulling content as well, but this is an unavoidable feature of any publishing revolution, from Gutenberg onward).
On the negative side, YouTube’s attention economy revenue model, supercharged with statistical recommendation algorithms, creates a browsing experience that can suck you into a powerful vortex of distraction and creeping extremism that cannot possibly be healthy.
A Better Way Forward
Perhaps the best way to emphasize the positives of online video while diminishing its negatives is to deploy a hybrid indie web approach.
Imagine an online world in which people hosted their innovative video on large, big-infrastructure platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, but then embedded the players on their own independent web sites. This would allow users to find interesting new video content by leveraging the same style of decentralized trust hierarchies that structure the blogosphere, instead of relying on artificial statistical algorithms tuned to optimize attention extraction.
Because YouTube came along at exactly the moment when broadband penetration made online video practical, we never had a period of indie experimentation before the market consolidated into platform monopolies. I think it’s worth exploring what we missed.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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