Digital Thoreau

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau’s thoughtful account of his years in the woods at Walden Pond was published. The book, Walden, is filled with insights that could only be acquired through quiet reflection on life’s essentials. One of my favorite quotes from the book, which I’ve used often in my work, is “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” Even back then in the mid-19th century, long before the distractions of our modern digital world, Thoreau recognized the importance of choosing how we spend our time with great care. The value of his cautionary guidance is even greater today, for the digital distractions that vie for our attention are more prolific, insidious, and potentially harmful than those that Thoreau encountered. In the spirit of Thoreau, Cal Newport has written a wonderful new book to help us live with greater intention and less distraction in the modern world, titled Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

Newport has rapidly become one of my favorite thinkers and writers about technology. Back in 2016, I reviewed one of his previous books, Deep Work, which I dearly love. Newport and I are both digital professionals who approach technologies with careful consideration. Neither of us are anti-technology. Instead, we understand that technologies are not inherently good, and that we should only embrace those that are truly useful and only do so in a way that preserves that usefulness without inviting waste or harm.

Several thoughtful writers in recent years have pointed out how digital technologies have been designed to harvest our attention for profit. Tim Wu, who wrote The Attention Merchants, is perhaps foremost among them. Newport addresses this concern by providing a prescription for managing the harmful effects of digital technologies. He calls this prescription digital minimalism, which he defines as:

A philosophy of technology use in which 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.

His prescription goes beyond tips and tricks, such as occasional digital sabbaths. It is more thorough, as the situation demands.

The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviors we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and…they’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.

Digital technologies are shaping cultures and minds, often in harmful ways. Before the words “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” in Walden appears the sentence “Our life is frittered away by detail.” At no time in the past has this been truer than it is today. The constant ding of incoming text messages, barely informative “Likes” on Facebook, and the endless queue of tweets that tether us to our smartphones are frittering our lives away. Digital technologies can add great value to our lives, but not if we embrace them indiscriminately.

2 Comments on “Digital Thoreau”


By Catalin. February 14th, 2019 at 10:00 am

Dear Sir,

I am grateful for continuing sharing your knowledge and reviews of interesting books you read. They are truly valuable and inspirational

By Dale Lehman. February 20th, 2019 at 8:06 pm

Your comments remind me of something I have thought about quite a lot lately. Early in my career I worked on models about telecommunications demand – factors that drove the demand for telephone calls. It was an era in which much good research was devoted to how we use telecommunications, and how it was changing. Jump forward (backward?!) to 2019. Almost nobody picks up their landline phone when it rings, if they even have one. Cell phones are ubiquitous, but are used mostly (and increasingly) for entertainment. The main drivers now are getting streaming video onto our “phones.” It seems as if our communications medium has become anything but. And, as you have pointed out (paraphrasing here), the information age is more like a disinformation age. 30 years ago, when I started working on such things, I never anticipated that we would be where we are today.

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