On the 612 ABC Brisbane Drive program yesterday afternoon, host Steve Austin suggested to Education Minister Grace Grace that increasing use of laptops, tablets, and smartphones could be behind declining NAPLAN scores for writing over the last decade. Steve noted correlation doesn’t imply causation, but his proposition struck me as credible. Certainly many of us now have the feeling that all the new digital tools which are facilitating constant connectivity and often shallow forms of communication via Facebook and Snapchat are having adverse consequences. We are less focused, less productive, and more anxious, as we are constantly bombarded with new requests or reminded about previous commitments.
Since the publication of his 2016 book Deep Work, Georgetown Computer Science Professor Cal Newport has led the resistance against the onslaught of social media and constant connectivity that is distracting us from the focused deep work we ideally should be doing. His latest book Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology, published in February by Penguin, may well be the most important business book of the year.
As an economist who frequently calls for greater use of cost-benefit analysis in decision making, I was very glad to see Newport’s definition of digital minimalism. Rephrasing it in economic terms, the philosophy is only to use digital tools which deliver net benefits, taking into account the full opportunity cost of your time and attention. Newport notes (on p. 29):
The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it.
For many of us, it may well be optimal to abandon Facebook or Twitter, or at least to adopt strict standard operating procedures for social media use—e.g. I will only check Facebook for half an hour on a Saturday afternoon and then I will intentionally only check what family and close friends are up to. Newport argues you’re best off deleting social media apps from your phone, and he notes not even Steve Jobs realised how distracted we would become by our smart phones when he launched the iPhone in 2007. The value proposition Jobs emphasised was that the iPhone is an iPod that doubles as a phone, so you don’t have to carry two devices. But Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, et cetera have changed everything, and now the few of us who are (largely) immune need to constantly watch out for all the “smombies”, the smart phone zombies, who are a danger to themselves and others on our city streets.
We can’t return to the pre-iPhone world, nor would it necessarily be desirable to do so, but we can certainly become smarter in how we use all the new technology. Cal Newport may have just solved this problem for us in Digital Minimalism. If widely adopted, I expect his advice would lead to significant improvements in productivity and well being.