day 9: the unbearable liberty of minimalism

by Cal Newport
Penguin Random House, 304pp., February 2019, 978-0525536512

One of my friends often tells me that most of anglophone philosophy is based on bad translations of european philosophy. I tend not to fall into these conversations over fears that my grasp of most of these things are so elementary that any addendum I might have in a conversation on this is briefly entertaining at best and mildly irritating at worst. However, there is something to be said about a tendency found in anglophone writers: they quote european philosophers at length in self-help books without actually justifying much of the tradition that has grown in philosophy after, say, a Nietzsche or an Aristotle. This does end up creating an impression of reading these philosophers for how much they can help you. Cal Newport’s fairly recent book Digital Minimalism goes between a book that is interventionist in its outlook to being an example of the kind of book that often has odd blind-spots of immense cultural value.

Newport’s book is one of the many attempts to educate myself about the conversation and literature about being data-conscious. Given Newport’s own academic background (he is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University), it is one the books I have consumed during this coronavirus-induced time that has magically appeared in my schedule. The reason the book appeals to me, therefore, is not because I read it as relevant literature but also about the “hacks” a peer might have about being data-conscious.

The book—should it be marketed to people from Gen Z to millennials—offers something that has become a near ubiquitous topic: Big Data is watching you. It is, however, not very radical in offering people the way to get out of it; quit it and monitor the way you develop your relationship with the tech giants of the world. The radical departure he makes, I would argue, is the manner he manages to tie-up a relationship between a happy and fulfilling life and that of a productive offline life through many lengthy passages of Aristotle, Thoreau, and Franklin. His many “practices”, for instance, include a 30 day declutter of your digital ecosystem, followed by high-quality leisure principles.

The reason it seems to be paradoxical to me is this: the kind of productivity that he encourages is so unapologetically apolitical that the high-quality leisure principles that he lays out only amplify a kind of outcome: a neoliberal one. Or rather, a quintessentially American one. Let me unpack this a little bit.

The Offline Island Bubble

There is enough talk about Facebook being an echo-chamber that has a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. There is far too much said about it everywhere for one to put links out there. The more dangerous issue that should be appealing to the digital minimalist, however, is that these echo-chambers do not simply have an impact on one’s life-quality because of the problems of the infinite scroll problem; it is also an issue of political leverage that one hands over to the Facebooks and Googles of the era. This is the problem of unregulated debates, working closely with tyrants who stamp out all dissent, and actually not stopping political ads that openly lie.

To counter this, when Newport tells the reader to find a balanced diet of views that are on the right and left sides of the aisle, it smacks of the centrist value of saying “there are good guys on both sides”. Listening to the right side of the aisle today, whether be it in Europe, US, or South Asia, means that we are enabling those who have blood on their hands.

The issue of social networks is not that it traps people’s productivity but also that should one be anything but a male/white/western/straight user, chances are that you will find your mental health affected by the indulgences these websites allow the most abusive/racist/sexist/violent of users. This is, then, not something that can be helped by going offline, can it? This is a political issue.

While I mused about this to myself recently, Newport’s book offered an explanation why questions of digital minimalism, or minimalism in general, uses some of the most disturbingly non-inclusive examples. There is a class aspect to it. In his “practice” that spoke about high-quality leisure principles, Newport mentions that one should be “handy”—one should learn how to make things and not spend hard earned leisure by mindlessly going about social media. This is a red herring. It sounds like a good idea till one realises that his examples in that part of the book deals solely with, what he calls, FI people; people who have gained Financial Independence at a relatively younger age. i.e., rich young people. The fact that even for one to even have/borrow the tools to execute such a proposition begs a question of capital: social and otherwise. To add to that, while I understand that mindlessly scrolling through social media takes a terrible toll on mental health, there is not much else one can do if one does not possess: a room of one’s own, capital to begin such a project, ability to execute such a project. With the recent explosion of disability studies in tech, the sheer enormity of this blind-spot was quite mind-boggling.

On the other hand, the examples of community building that he gave also fetishizes a kind of community building—one with internal jargon, jokes etc.—that would be extremely gendered in some cases. This is also why many many such minimalist groups continue to be white, middle-class, and (most times) male. Or, as the example of Mr. Money Mustache in the book shows, one that tacitly approves of gentrification moves in a city.

Perhaps this is the offline island bubble that is problematic in many ways that has to be theorized before we all assume that all offline life is sustainable, good, and ethical in spite of them being exclusionary, homogeneous, and quite frankly, class-blind.

The Politics of Data Minimalism

The politics of minimal data consumption not only includes more complex conversations about sustainability and environmental concerns (which the book does not touch upon at all); it is also about what it means to organize a political consciousness in the 21st century without falling into the trap of technological pitfalls—which includes poor mental health due to people having to be bullied online on race/gender/sexuality issues, issues of inclusion, and the already mentioned issue of handing sensitive data to tech giants. The politics of social media, I would argue, is also the politics of organization—not just of your own data and how that is used by social media giants to monitor public opinion about a regime—but also of organizing communities. Grassroot level community organizations should be diverse and inclusive bodies of people and in including an example like F3nation, it is a veritable fetish of men working out together that Newport ends up championing in his book.

The danger of this is not simply in my finding it blandly centrist; the danger of digital minimalism being seen as a cute productive hack to getting more done while not advocating structural changes in the data game is the reason why people who come from diverse backgrounds stay glued on to their phones: to find a community that keeps them mentally sane in a world where every whiff of political action often becomes the caricatured apolitical bubble that helps one’s productivity.

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