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On the parallels between digital minimalism and work minimalism

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism (2019) is more a book for my old blog than this one, but a couple of long chapters address how to use one’s time when there’s no external force shaping that time. Digital minimalism is supposed to combat the forces applied by digital tools (most notoriously social media), but much of the same wisdom applies to the forces applied by paid work.

Newport’s recommendations for “reclaiming leisure” aren’t too different from what I’ve discovered from my own time off work: prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption; use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world (that is, craft); and seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions. He follows up with some concrete strategies like setting aside particular times of the week for particular kinds of leisure; repairing or building something every week; and joining clubs and societies.

The “digital maximalism” that Newport is trying to combat is in many ways like what some critics fear from universal basic incomes and other welfare payments: that we’ll simply spend all of our free time in sex, drugs, and television. As Newport describes the present day, many social media users are already in something like this state insofar as they fritter away an hour or more a day clicking notifications instead of doing something that would satisfy them far more in the long run. Newport contends that they don’t do this out of inherent laziness or a desire for banal entertainment, but because the developers of social media applications have designed them so as to keep people clicking.

The point of digital minimalism is to make conscious decisions about how one uses technology, rather than blindly going along with whatever it and its boosters throw up. Newport quotes Henry David Thoreau in several places, drawing parallels between Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” and compulsive social media use on one hand, versus Thoreau’s desire to “live deliberately” and taking control of one’s leisure on the other.

What Newport says about leisure makes it sound a lot like work. Perhaps those who talk highly of “work” as compared to “leisure” do so because they think of work as providing exactly what Newport wants for leisure. But the word “work” in this context usually refers to something that one does in return for pay, and is rarely completely free, making it in some respects more like the useless clicking than the demanding sort of leisure that Newport advocates. Paid work hopefully achieves more than clicking on notifications, and much of it is surely more satisfying, but it’s nonetheless imposed on the worker to one degree or another—even the self-employed have to serve customers to get their money.

I was probably a digital minimalist even before social media became a thing; sometimes I’m glad I was exposed to the Internet relatively early and grew tired of its excesses before corporate marketing machines had really got going in their campaign to keep our attention. Perhaps that set me up for “work minimalism”, too—or maybe I’m just that kind of person.

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