Digital Minimalism: "Why We'll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes"

(Josh Cohen) #1

There is a new book coming out in a few days called Digital Minimalism that people might be interested in.

We see these tools, and we have this narrative that, “You can do this on Facebook,” or “This new feature on this device means you can do this, which would be convenient.” What you don’t factor in is, “Okay, well what’s the cost in terms of my time attention required to have this device in my life?” Facebook might have some particular thing that’s valuable, but then you have the average U.S. user spending something like 50 minutes a day on Facebook products. That’s actually a pretty big [amount of life] that you’re now trading in order to get whatever the potential small benefit is.

I’m looking forward to reading the book, because I’ve been moving in that direction over the past couple of years. Some of the things I’ve done already:

  • I left Facebook and all of their other sites, including Instagram and What’s App. (Humans should read books not timelines.)
  • I removed nearly all of the apps from my smart phone and turned off notifications for all but three of them.
  • I started shopping around for a simple flip phone to replace my smartphone when it finally breaks (it’s about to go).
  • Switched to an email system based on Mutt, which allows me to rapidly delete emails in the morning before replying to specific ones in a slower email client. I spend much less time on email with this system.
  • I browse the Web with all CSS and JavaScript turned off by default, only enabling it on a per-side basis where needed. The end result is that the Web looks pretty bad by default and I don’t spend much time mindlessly surfing through articles. I can make articles readable with one click using Firefox’s reader icon or a few clicks by enabling the CSS/JS with umatrix.

I’ll post a summary of the book after I read it.


Interesting. Following…


Could you elaborate on “that direction” maybe?

On some level I read this as something that Tim Ferris promotes in his 4-Hour Workweek…

…on the other hand, it seems like some kind of aversion therapy “ugly-fying” web pages… you say yourself “The end result is that the Web looks pretty bad by default”.

I’m curious… is “that direction” something to do with efficiency, etc. or is it going in the direction of vi as a word processor, pine for email, and lynx for internet browsing? I mean in terms of pure functionalism, those three on a GUI-free OpenBSD or what-have-you could be a nice setup… taken to the extreme: no mouse, dvorak keyboard, and a monochrome display. I mean if that is the ultimate goal…

Not trying to be funny with the last statement either, really would like to understand your motivation to go “that direction.”

(Josh Cohen) #4

Reducing technology use – quitting social media, getting rid of smartphone, etc. Here are some other posts about it:

Did he mention Mutt there? I thought he just checks email at 4 pm or something like that. I don’t have any limits on when I check email – I just do it with tools that let me get through it as quickly as possible. I spend a lot less time on emails now, because I can use vim keybindings to quickly scroll through and delete most of them. Pointing and clicking on things is much slower.

There is a whole field that studies how to get people addicted to technology. I counter it by removing as much of those things as possible (recommended content, embedded auto-play videos, animations, etc.). I’ve noticed major detrimental effects to my thinking from social media and smartphones, and I want my mind back. :slight_smile:

Here are a couple of articles about it:

If you click the reader icon in Firefox on a news or blog article you can see what articles look like even with CSS and JS removed. They are still readable.

The “digital minimalism” direction isn’t for efficiency, but I use some of those programs because they are more efficient than regular GUI interfaces – Vim for programming and Emacs Org Mode (with Evil Mode) for notes and writing. My computer isn’t completely text-based, but it uses a minimalist window manager called i3wm that I configured to use vim keybindings. I use Firefox, because browsers like lynx/w3m/elinks can’t render JavaScript when needed. My laptop is mostly keyboard-driven. The main thing I use the touchpad for is on websites. (If Pentadactyl still worked, I would use that.)


I don’t see a problem with having a smartphone. It is a device that only potentially (it must be emphasized) enable us to distract ourselves for hours with futile things. On the other hand, it can serves us really well. All depends on self-control. Of course eliminating a possibility that can lead us to distraction is a good idea; but all have costs, and, though I totally agree at the uselessness of Facebook and Instagram, etc, I don’t think that it would be profitable not to have a smartphone as it would not be so to get over with internet. WhatsApp groups of studying serve me well, it is interesting. All depends upon the use to which you direct the thing under your command, not on the thing itself.


I can absolute understand you wanting back your mind. If you’ve identified “social media and smartphones” as the root cause, then…

…seems reasonable as a way to achieve that.

Well, in the article he says:

Digital minimalism is a clear philosophy: you figure out what’s valuable to you. For each of these things you say, “What’s the best way I need to use technology to support that value?” And then you happily miss out on everything else. It’s about additively building up a digital life from scratch to be very specifically, intentionally designed to make your life much better.

…so yeah, it wouldn’t appear to be about efficiency per se. Rather seems like an “Elimination Diet” that afterwards slowly reintroduces certain foods (technologies) to diagnose food (social media) allergies.

It seemed a bit on the nose actually, with him talking about a “a thirty-day detox”…

Newport suggests beginning with a thirty-day detox during which you stop using any “optional technologies” that you can forgo without causing harm in your professional or personal life (you probably need email; you probably don’t need Facebook).

…and then later going into keto, paleo, and gluten-free examples. And everyone’s favorite factoid about sugar and how it’s just like heroin:

You get actual lasting changes to your brain chemistry. Now you have a brain that needs stimuli just to get back up to normal. Just like the drug addict: after a while it takes more and more drugs just get back to normal.

…only that he’s talking about technologies. That last one seems like it’s lifted straight from some keto blog. Anyways, doesn’t seem unreasonable but I’d liken it to food allergies or alcohol rather than cigarettes.

With alcohol you could argue that there are business dinners, where the alcohol consumption is in moderation (digital minimalism); because somehow a social etiquette of sorts. Then there are frat parties (techno-maximalism) which fits his more is better argument. Lastly, there is alcoholism to which the response should be (digital) abstinence.

The cigarette hyperbole seems a bit unnecessary. It’s like saying “should consider putting our kids into four-wheeled killing machines only because they got their license” and then citing some fatal car accident statistics. Also don’t get why “social media” equates to “smartphones” in his discussion…

There are probably people without smartphones that spend all their time on social media via laptop or desktop. Likewise, there will be people with smartphones that don’t have any or that much social media apps installed / in use. I can follow his social media argument to some extend but I don’t get why smartphones are to blame… all birds are animals not all animals are birds (inductive versus deductive reasoning).

Not sure, maybe… my point was more about the general philosophy, not the tools per se. That said, I’d like to see a moderated discussion between a “digital minimalist” and a “digital nomad”; where they agree and where they disagree when it comes to technology.

(Josh Cohen) #7

There may be some people who can control themselves, but it looks like there is an addiction problem in society. The average person spends 2 hours per day on social media. 9 hours per day for teens. Some kids are checking social media 100 times per day. Millennials are checking their phones 150 times per day.

One benefit of deleting most apps on my phone and turning off most notifications for the remaining ones is that I don’t have much of a habit of checking my phone any more. I made it so that nothing much is happening on my phone even when I do pick it up.

Possibly because of the notifications that intentionally train users to keep checking the phones? I’ll post an update after I read the book.

I don’t think the ideas are mutually exclusive. I’m a former digital nomad who is not convinced that smartphones are a good idea (in general). :slight_smile:

Here’s another article from a couple of days ago:

Ironically, some of the first groups to find coping mechanisms for tech’s ubiquitous reach were the hyper-aware Silicon Valley elite. Early dissent started within tech’s inner circles — like former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, who coined the idea of “Time Well Spent” — and spread to tech employees who spent their days building apps and their off-time raising their children not to use them. And while the research around the effects of cellphone use is still developing because it’s a relatively new topic, there’s a general scientific consensus that cellphone addiction is a real problem.

Even tech bosses like Tim Cook, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg have publicly acknowledged the powers of their tools to damage your mental well being — and some have built features into their technologies that try to gently ease people out of overuse. Some have criticized this approach, saying that if tech execs really wanted to help people with smartphone dependence, they would change their products to be inherently less addictive.


I totally agree, it’s eating up all of our valuable times and therefore stealing our lives. I am forever telling my friends to put down their smartphones so we can have a decent conversation. It’s like the society has become digital slaves to digital devices.

(Josh Cohen) #9

I haven’t read it, but earlier today someone recommended Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. It sounds like it’s along the same lines.


Have you seen the back cover though?

Arguments 3 and 10 <insert sarcasm here> already got me convinced… no need to read the whole thing.

(Josh Cohen) #11

I’m not sure exactly what number 10 means without reading it. I’ve seen number 3 happen to some people, especially on Facebook.

The book is only 160 pages, so I’ll probably read it at some point and post an update. :slight_smile:


As a millennial with bad tech habits, I really appreciate Cal Newport’s work. I’ve seen an overall decline in my cognitive abilities over the last few years. While there are probably multiple factors here - lack of exercise, poor diet, etc - the predominating issue is constant distractability.

When faced with a challenge, I used to want to solve it. Now my go-to is Facebook or Reuters. Now I notice when I open tabs or pick up my phone. Newport’s work hit me right between the eyes.

fcfv/bjoern.gumboldt are right to consider one’s internal constitution. Josh is right to note that we have an epidemic. There are case-by-case considerations as well as universals: something may produce a fight-or-flight response, while an individual’s constitution will determine what happens. Either way, though, you’re dealing with a fight-or-flight response. We all have the same essential chemistry and these tools are designed to interact with that chemistry a certain way.

I am deleting my Facebook as we speak because I simply can’t manage it well. At the same time, my herbalist uses it at specified times to interact with his community. He doesn’t have an overuse problem - he hates staring at computer screens.

I’ve found Siempo to be of some use for my smartphone. It simplifies the U/I and every time you open it, you’ll see the goal you’ve chosen as most important. Still, it’s easy to get into the habit of scrolling past it.


Could you elaborate a bit on fight-or-flight response and same essential chemistry… not sure I’m following.


Should have been clearer. I’m not saying our technology elicits a fight-or-flight response. I’m saying that humans all possess a nervous system that works in the same way.

If the technology is observed to elicit a certain behavioral or neural response from individuals, it can be safe to say that it has a general effect on the population, right? Yet as I have observed, some people are able to overcome it. They’re not glued to their phones like me. In my friend’s case, he simply has a personal aversion to computers, so he tends not to overdo it.


Okay, let’s say it does “work” in the same (or similar) way… that does not mean that nervous system responses are all the same for everyone. Consider fat storage in men and women due to different estrogen to testosterone ratios, serotonin levels and depression, etc.

What exactly has been observed where? A conditioning that occurs that the article even says parents use with their own children all the time? What’s the “observation” you are referring to?


Exactly. Hence why I said it’s important to consider “an individual’s constitution” and gave the example of my herbalist, who tends not to have the same overuse problems as I do.

However, everyone has a parasympathetic nervous system. Our shared dopaminergic decision-making experience allowed us to work together as hunter gatherers. Avoid the ill and celebrate the successful hunt - this is dopamine at work. Maybe there was one of the group who simply didn’t experience the same thing, but it is safe to assume that the vast majority had the same neural response to the same stimuli.

I’m talking more generally here in reference to what Cal Newport wrote about, which is that our relationship with technology is generally contributing to poor focus. There’s an article on Harvard’s website here that talks about dopamine and social reward in relation to technology.


To quote directly from the article you mention:

While there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones themselves, the true drivers of our attachments to these devices are the hyper-social environments they provide.

The article discusses social media, not smartphones even though mentioned in the title, and also not technology per se. The article that @Josh posted initially was called: “Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes". Which brings me back to what I said before:

Also, since his conclusion is to use features in your smartphone to limit its ability to grab your attention, it’s really the hero and not the villain of the story (just kidding, it’s neither):

Doing things like disabling your notifications for social media apps and keeping your display in black and white will reduce your phone’s ability to grab and hold your attention. Above all, mindful use of the technology is the best tool you have.

I’ve added emphasis to the last sentence because it seems most important. There is probably a reason why we are not all heroin addicts with gambling addictions and alcohol problems. He’s also talking about “the technology” (social media apps) and not technology per se.

Although not as intense as hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it.

…then you could also conclude that a more intense stimulus should have even more of an impact.


Great thread Josh. I’m a huge Cal Newport fan and preordered his book a few weeks ago. I had previously read two of his other books including Deep Work which talks about the importance of focus and sustained attention in problem-solving and creative work.

If you haven’t heard of Nicholas Carr (didn’t see a direct reference) I would point you to his book published 2010 called the Shallows. He began noticing the impact of the internet (before smart phone and social media saturation point) on his ability to focus and read books for long periods of time. Being an avid life time reader he was wondering why this was happening to him and made the connection. He warns that we would be entering a something like an intellectual dark age, not because we didn’t have knowledge at our fingertips, but that people were being drained of their ability to focus. I believe he makes some arguments on the value of memory in order to form new ideas. If you never encode some things in your head and depend on Google to look everything up your mind cannot, in downtime, link concepts together to come up with new ideas and other associations.

I’m in the corporate business world and go to meetings with supposedly dedicated professionals who drive say 30 minutes to hear a talk but can’t stop looking at their phones. I’ve had no success pointing this out to even people involved in self-improvement type ethics. They just get defensive and I think ultimately do not want to admit that they have a problem or it has made an impact on their performance or social relationships.

Of course, I think they are completely deluding themselves. Ask them about what happened in the meeting weeks ago and they draw a blank stare. It’s becoming to a point where I think people think I make stuff up but I do have the notes, and often times from meetings these items that take place even go into Anki for permanent retention so I know these aren’t false memories and their memories are completely shot.

I’ve never been on Facebook or the likes. Reddit is very addictive. It has really gone downhill since the beginning. TLDR and Twitter length smart ass posts usually replace serious discussion.

All this has made me really cynical about the nature of humanity. What they consider “deep thought” and “friendships” appears to just be hitting that social/intellectual dopamine reward cycle as soon as possible. The Twitter/Facebook sorting of “friends” and “tribes” is extremely scary. Such people, formerly intelligent and thoughtful, appear to be like zombies to me who are so triggered by their tribes form of social outrage while at the same time getting that sense of being a true member of that tribe (belonging, purpose reinforcement) that I realize you can’t reason with them anymore.

The Smart Phone would be very difficult to give up because of AnkiDroid. I use downtime on the road, lines, etc. to study my cards on the phone as opposed to checking my (non-existent) social media accounts. I assume most people think I’m on Facebook or something if they see me doing this.

Thanks again.

(Josh Cohen) #19

Thanks, I’ll look it up.

I experienced similar effects after I got a smartphone. I regained the ability to read paper books after I turned off almost all phone notifications and deleted most of the apps.

Talking to people about Internet and gaming addiction used to be similar (about 15 years ago).


I browse the Web with all CSS and JavaScript turned off by default, only enabling it on a per-side basis where needed.

I like this. I’m going to try it.

I got rid of my smartphone a couple of years ago. Never going back.