Cal Newport, with his astonishing productivity fuelled by discipline and strategic boundaries, reminds us in his newest book of the need to digitally declutter. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is a call to choose the path less travelled, and say a firm no to our culture’s vehement attempts to form us into its image. As followers of Christ, we need to pay careful attention to how we are being misshapen by the demands of the digital age.
Newport’s thesis is shaped by a well-articulated commitment to using technology to serve life, not the other way around. As with anything, our philosophies shape our lifestyles. In Newport’s case, his philosophy around technology use means that “you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
This philosophy sounds great, and most would happily concur with this premise. It’s just that getting there is not as easy as it sounds. Journeying toward digital minimalism is an act of courage, and a long, slow, even painful attempt towards resisting the spirit of the age of More. Our consumerist culture positions itself as the redeemer of all things, the answer is always to aquire more, whether it is stuff or the dopamine-inducing, intangible ‘likes’ of a Facebook post.
I would be the first to admit I’m not there yet. I wish I were, but I’m not. I’ve wanted to detach myself from Facebook, but excuse my lack of follow-through on requirements of being part of our DMin cohort. Newport reveals that these addictive apps are engineered to stimulate our yearning for response: “Hey, over here! Can’t you see I’m alive?!” The longer we engage on social media, the greater the profitability of the social media giants.
A pastor friend mentioned recently that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but rather community. To wean ourselves off of the addiction to social media, we must intentionally pursue real relationship, face-to-face, in community.
Newport’s quest for digital minimalism is a noble and worthwhile venture, but it is only the tip of the problem. Along with Cavanaugh, Miller, Bell and Polyani, this author alludes to more than the digital problem when he explores how our capitalist culture reduces life down to units that can be consumed. “This magician’s trick of shifting the units of measure from money to time is the core novelty of what the philosopher Frédéric Gros calls Thoreau’s ‘new economics’, a theory that builds on the following axiom…: ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’ This new economics offers a radical rethinking of the consumerist culture that began to emerge in Thoreau’s time.”
Today in our little coffee shop in town (the only one with an espresso machine), I met with one of SSU’s professors – my favourite one, actually. She spoke of her class on sustainability, where economic performance and unit measurement is downplayed by using a different sort of measuring stick. Instead of dollars earned or stuff acquired, she speaks of quality of life and choosing less to enjoy more. What we think we need to have a decent life is upended when we begin to explore how the sharing economy can benefit community. We learn to barter rather than purchase. We learn patience rather than quick fixes. We learn that berries gathered by the side of the road are even more delicious than those shipped from Chile.
Admitting our economic system has glaring weaknesses is easier for the 99%. But the 1%, which includes myself and my philanthropy clients, have a harder time acknowledging this fact. As we benefit from the system in so many ways, followers of Christ in particular must discover how to deny its power to shape our lives. One of the ways is through the power of generosity, but even with generosity, caution must be employed.
Large-scale philanthropy, as it is currently manifested in our culture, is done with more of a capitalist mindset where consumption is still paramount. Just as Facebook ‘likes’ keep us coming back to social media, philanthropy is often done to stir up the dopamine with news hits, donor walls, and photo-ops with oversized checks. Philanthropists, when giving as consumers, are merely finding other ways to acquire ‘likes’.
In contrast, the philanthropy journey needs to be an intentional decluttering of one’s ego. Surrendering control, mutual submission, self-sacrifice for another, and the humility to take a back seat are all virtues to pursue, and the way that Jesus Christ has modelled for us.
One of Newport’s remedies to learning these new rhythms is through slowing down and walking. He quotes Henry David Thoreau again who stated, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” When I read this, I was reminded of my three camino journeys where I had the time and space to smell the air and hear the crunch of gravel under my feet. I think it’s almost time for another one. Because if I don’t listen to that voice, I think I’ll go crazy.
 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 38.
 Newport, 50.
 Newport, 146.