In this day and age, we are living in a world in which we have a proclivity to overestimate the benefits of a digitally hyper-connected society. As we become more and more entrenched in our digital milieu we tend to more and more identify with our digital avatars instead of our own real selves. I remember the time when I used to rush to the nearest PCO booth either to make a call to a friend or to my parents in my early college years. With the advent of smartphones, things changed completely. Phone booths that were omnipresent at every nook and corner of the city were replaced with pocket-friendly smartphones. I vividly recollect the first time I had gone to Singapore and while I traveled in the local subway express I had an epiphany as I looked up and looked around my train compartment. I couldn’t spot even one person (except me) who wasn’t wearing a white wire! No, I am not talking about the CIA-spy-stuff-wire I am talking about the wire connected to one’s iPhone. All around me I saw people deeply involved in browsing their iPhones sporting the white-wire headphones. This back then was a culture shock. Now it is ubiquitous. This revolution was a Big Bang moment for human society. In this highly connected virtual world where we are increasingly growing anxious about our digital selves, we are also increasingly becoming disconnected from our authentic selves. This is what the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport tries to bring out.
Cal clearly delineates the structure of his book into two parts Foundations & Practices. In the first part, he lays the foundation to his argument, or rather I would put it as a thought experiment on his theory of digital minimalism. Rife with interesting stories and deep research he clearly backs his line of thought with evidence, not only from ancestral history but also from recent researches on the benefits of having a minimalistic approach to life. Of course, there is a school of thought that harps on the ubiquitous benefits of smartphones and a digitally connected hyper-world but Cal smartly punctures that school of thought by giving perspective, and leaving you in a reflective state or at certain points even feeling guilty of even picking up your own smartphone. Throughout the first half of the book, you will have a nagging question lurking at the back of your mind as to ‘how to be more mindful in using these technologies?’ and 'how to use this technology to maximize its value for me in a fashion so that I can minimize its harms as well?'.
Grounded in pragmatism, the second part of the book doesn’t revolve around discarding your smartphones altogether instead Cal encourages the smart use of your phones. Cal convincingly lays out his minimalistic theory in the first half and smoothly transitions to Practices in the second. A cursory look might deceivingly make you fall into the trap of taking the practices to be too superficial and simplistic to be effective. Be it ‘spending time alone’ or ‘reclaiming your leisure time’ or ‘refraining from clicking the like button’, but only until you devour in each topic can you fully appreciate the profundity of Cal’s suggested practices one needs to mandatorily incorporate in one’s daily use of these technologies.
Cal wraps up his book by urging the New Age Millenials (and the likes) to join the attention resistance in a highly attention-driven or attention-seeking economy calling this, a battle between David (that is us users) and Goliath (the technologies). He boldly lays threadbare the claim that ‘the attention economy describes the business sector that makes money, gathering consumer’s attention and then repackaging and selling it to the advertisers.’ One does close the book reflecting that in this battle with Goliath, we David(s) may need to adopt a drastic approach in order to circumnavigate the perils that the digital Goliath(s) present us with.
HIGH POINT OF THE BOOK
Cal opens his book and lays the setting stone by calling this a ‘lopsided arms race’ in which these technologies are clandestinely ‘encroaching on our autonomy and preying with increasing precision our deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains while we naively believe that we are only fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods.’
Of course, there are several high points in the book but because of my insatiable enigma around Greek mythology and philosophy, for me, the high point in the book came right in the beginning with Cal’s reference to Socrates, and I’ll end this book review by bringing that fable out in verbatim below:
‘As Socrates explained to Phaedrus in Plato’s famous chariot metaphor, our soul can be understood as a chariot driver struggling to rein two horses, one representing our better nature and the other our baser impulses.
When we increasingly cede autonomy to the digital, we energize the latter horse and make the chariot driver’s struggle to steer increasingly difficult – a diminishing of our soul’s authority.’
WHO SHOULD READ THE BOOK
A must-read for anyone who owns a smartphone! Period.
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