By Steve Donoghue
When I read Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” when it first came out at the beginning of 2019, I was pleased by its intelligence but baffled by its pessimism. In the book, Newport urges his readers to “detox” themselves from addictive social media and prune the electronic elements out of their lives. When he was going on about the damage that sites like Twitter or Facebook can do to things like self-esteem or simple powers of concentration, I was nodding along; I know lots of young people, and I currently know not one single person born after 2000 who can concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of all else for twenty consecutive minutes. It’s not that they choose not to do this – it’s that they aren’t physically able to. Their powers of concentration are simply gone.
It was when Newport included email in his rogues gallery that he lost me, as indeed I’m sure he lost 95% of his readers. He writes in his book about how you don’t NEED email, and how its constant elbowing for attention distracts you from the things you do, in fact, need.
I remember reading that back in 2019 and thinking, “Well, that might be true for you, since I’m now assuming you’re employed as a lumberjack, but it won’t work for most people.”
I’m not a lumberjack. If I didn’t use email every day, I’d not only be out of work but I’d be missing out on a wide variety of personal interactions that are purely positive. Before email, the daily contact I enjoy with dozens of friends around the world would have been weekly or monthly contact via sporadic static-choked phone calls or endlessly delayed snail-mail letters. When “Digital Minimalism” called for me to walk away from email, presumably in favor of the hand-crank wall phone down at Doc Frye’s drug store and general emporium, I thought the book had gone too Chicken Little for the real world.
But time lends perspective. In the four years since I read Newport’s book, that world of Distraction Internet has expanded enormously and extended its tentacles into virtually every aspect of life. Gadgets have proliferated like mayflies. I still think Newport was nuts when it comes to something like email, but on other points I think he was prescient.
Certainly there’s been a flood of books similar to “Digital Minimalism” in the ensuing years, all echoing or even intensifying Newport’s message. The problem isn’t that most people don’t realize how junk-filled their lives have become – it’s that they don’t want to take the scorched-earth one-small-potted-cactus all-or-nothing approach that’s become such a mockable stereotype of any kind of minimalist zeal. People sense – quite rightly – that the minimalists who film themselves sitting lotus-style in completely empty apartments mostly want to spite the long-suffering Boca Raton parents who are paying for those apartments. What most people do, unfortunately, is throw out the whole idea, when really it’s only the little bodhisattva manqué in the spotlight who needs to go.
Once you realize that, what emerges is far less an all-or-nothing digital minimalism and far more the idea of digital decluttering. This idea rests on intentionality: not “do I have too many things?” but “do I really use and value all the things I have?”
This idea has likewise launched a thousand books. A couple of years ago, for instance, Wealhouse Publishing brought out a very succinct and nicely-presented volume called “Paperless: Decluttering Your Digital Life.” Early on in that book, the targets are fairly large and easy to spot: great big metal filing cabinets, for instance.
I go way back with great big metal filing cabinets – in fact, my love of them probably had fairly common origin-point for a certain generation. I read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories until they became close to a Holy Scripture, and so often in those stories, when Holmes is confronted with some new mystery or bit of incunabula, he reaches for (or, lazy slug, bids Watson reach for) the great paste-in albums Holmes has accumulated on every subject imaginable. Every time I clipped out some interesting story from the newspapers, some promising debut book review from one of the review journals, some quirky photo from a local periodical (or from the Irish racing pages, the Obituaries), I’d file it away in one of those great big metal filing cabinets, dreaming of the moment when they’d provide crucial information for some new inquiry or piece of writing.
It never happened, of course. But the great big filing cabinets filled and multiplied just the same.
Long before there was a “digital” to declutter, I came to my senses and went through those great big filing cabinets like a California forest fire. The book reviews got trimmed, dated, folded, and inserted into the appropriate books – where I’d be certain to be able to find them, quickly, without fingering through millions of documents. The miscellaneous grainy photos and odd clippings went into a mighty bonfire in the backyard, with my beagles in solemn attendance. The great big filing cabinet themselves are long since fallen to dust in some landfill, never missed for a moment in all the decades since.
But digital decluttering goes on. How many devices do I really need? A stout, reliable laptop, yes, a necessity for any working writer. A cell phone, alas, is also a necessity. That’s two devices. I don’t play video games, and I haven’t had a TV in thirty years, but what else? Two more come to mind: a tablet of some kind, and a dedicated e-reader of some kind. There’s technically nothing my tablet can do that my phone can’t also do, only with a bit less real estate. So the tablet, just as a general category, can largely go. That’s a big step in the direction of digital decluttering!
As for dedicated e-readers, they, too, have become a kind of basic necessity. But WHICH e-reader, of the many I have and the hundreds on offer? That’s a question for another day!