Digital Minimalism On Campus: Books, Higher Education, and Human Flourishing

Newport Digital Minimalism +-+4460807056_140Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Random House, 2019. 256 pages.  ISBN 9780525542872  (Other sources cited in this article are listed at the end.)

Minimalist –anything spare or stripped to its bare essentials.  Minimalism became a cultural movement, then a social commitment: live with less than 100 things, or Marie Kondo’s things that spark joy. Is digital minimalism a contradiction in terms? Is it relevant to higher education, or is it another so-called luxury like “liberal arts education?”  Read on.

  1. Digital Minimalism

The present is a digitally maximal time –but it’s all very vague.  What’s good is great and best in huge quantities: maximum use of digital media (and social media in particular” to give “people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (—Facebook’s mission statement). How? Just connect, share, and like, and somehow good things will happen.  “You never know, maybe you’ll find this useful” – one of the weakest sales propositions ever.

Anything or anyone that seems to resist digital maximalism risk the label “Luddite,” a dismissive reference to 19th-century weavers who destroyed machines to save, they thought, their way of life.  Newport is no Luddite: he’s a professor of computer science at Georgetown, author of erudite papers on distributed networks as well as popular works such as So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012).  In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) he explored how to maintain focus to do optimal, cognitively demanding work in a world of distractions: high-value, high-impact undertakings rather than low-impact tasks.  Digital Minimalism sprang from his readers’ struggles with the role of new technologies in their personal lives.  The insight came to him while on a walk on a deserted beach in the Bahamas (Newport strongly recommends walking as an analog practice)— a lovely location for “deep work!”

Digital minimalism is “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” –without the infamous Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).  Living this philosophy successfully means engaging long-term in cost/benefit analyses: is the benefit worth the time?  Time is the most truly limited resource. Clutter is costly; optimizing your time is crucial; intentionality is satisfying: consistently following through on your commitments.

Newport unpacks all this lucidly (he is, after all, a computer scientist).  His first chapters lay the foundations: why declutter your digital life? What can you gain? How do you do it and stick to it? His latter chapters focus on practices: how to do a digital de-clutter; how to grow comfortable again with spending time alone; how to reclaim real leisure; how to avoid digital rabbit holes such as clicking “like,” and how to find other digital minimalists: community support. He seeks to answer Andrew Sullivan’s plaintive essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being” (2016): to help upend Sullivan’s lament “by providing a constructive way to engage and leverage the latest innovations to your advantage” –to be able to “say with confidence: ‘Because of technology, I’m a better human being than I ever was before.’”

Wait—isn’t this the point of an education? Newport acknowledges the depths here: Aristotle, Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln; but he avoids getting pulled off-task.  The book is a readable length, but its shadow stretches very far indeed: becoming a better human being stretches far beyond cleansing the enchantments of technology.

Back, for a moment to Sullivan:  his moment of insight came after illness, sleeplessness, the demands of a profitable media business (blog), and dwindling friendships. “Multi-tasking was a mirage. This was a zero-sum game. I either lived as a voice online or I lived human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.”  Why zero-sum? He had (has) only so much time to pay attention. The ceaseless wind-tunnel of distraction “denies us the deep satisfaction that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood —and an identity.”

Many university teachers have noticed that students (especially undergraduates) now seem even less prepared to engage in serious thinking, research, writing, and lab work than a decade ago.  Their observations dovetail with major shifts in student mental health observed by counselors in the past few years, validated by Jean Twenge’s research on those born 1995-2012, who grew up with constant access to social media. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. . . Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones . . . . The effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression . . . . This trend has been especially steep among girls.” Twenge’s teenage research subjects in 2015-2016 are (or will) enroll in university classes 2018-2021.

Can this be blithely dismissed: That’s progress, you can’t stop it?  “Progress” hides a more sinister reality: the social media apps these young people use so often have been specifically engineered to encourage maximal use through intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.

  • Apple engineers Justin Santamaria and Chris Marcellino developed the iPhone push-notification technology that affects the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use: “reward-based behavior that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways.”
  • Tristan Harris (“Design Ethicist” at Google) notes that humans crave approval, and companies tweeks their apps to hook their users with the power of unpredictable positive feedback, sprinkling “intermittent variable rewards [likes, tags, tweets, etc.] all over their products because its good for business.” Getting a reward is like winning at a slot machine, and “several billion people have a slot machine in their pocket.”
  • Sean Parker (Facebook founder) remembers, “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

The combination of phones and social media apps is specifically designed to hook users –especially young people—into prolonged use because their business model is to expose them to paid advertising, political, and entertainment content intended to shape their behavior and gather their votes and dollars.  A great many users (especially the young) are compulsively on their phones because they have been hooked –exactly what the phones were designed to do.  Sean Parker fears that social media “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”  Sullivan suggests that this enslavement is merely “new antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.”

These intentions are not a new idea, but in digital engineering now taken to new extremes.  Timothy Wu writes that newspapers were drastically changed by the introduction of advertising in the 19th century: readers became not just subscribers, but also an audience the newspapers delivered to advertisers.  Matthew Crawford notes that the first industrial assembly lines, by demanding concentration on repetitious tasks, so altered the experience of work that Henry Ford’s workers simply walked out in 1913.  When Ford wanted to add 100 workers to the line, he had to hire 963, and was forced to double the daily wage to keep the line staffed.  In broader social terms, Crawford writes elsewhere that advertising through social media apps of the claim a large portion of the “attentional commons” for private purposes in the attention economy, with the resulting surfeit of messages and enervated users.  Just as Ford’s innovations in long term fomented a powerful labor union, could a “user union” come to counterbalance corporate attention engineering?

Resisting these claims to wage labor or attention engineering is not new.  The 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris grew from their revulsion against mechanized production and the Dickensian, oppressive division of sweatshop labor in Victorian England.  Newport advances Thoreau’s famous axiom in Walden, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”  Rather than the standard account of cost in money, Thoreau counts the cost in life: attention, connection, his pleasure of living deliberately.  In the first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau gives a very straightforward, New England accounting of his life on the pond, replete with tables (his kind of spread-sheet) to show his point that frequently more is actually less.  By contrast, do not our Concord-like students, crushed and smothered under their load of distraction and debt, come to lead lives of quiet desperation?

Is there any solution or alternative?

A hint of a solution has been given, ironically, by Facebook itself.  Its own David Ginsberg and Moira Burke ask, “is spending time on social media bad for us?” After reviewing a lot of research, they conclude, “it really comes down to how you use the technology.”  This gives the game away: reflective, intentional use (in Newport’s words) “punctures the myth of Facebook as a foundational technology that everyone should just “use” in some generic sense . . . . [they] are encouraging people to think critically about exactly what they want to get out of this service.”

Newport realizes the potential of Ginsberg’s and Burke’s admission. “This mind-set is potentially disastrous” for Facebook because it could result in far less time spent in it, dramatically decreasing its value for advertisers and investors.  Any explicit comparison of the real costs of time and attention with the real benefits of social media threatens Facebook’s business model.

Reflective, intentional, and “critical use is a critical problem for the attention economy.”  By developing minimal and deliberate use of digital technology, users might “front only the essential facts of life,” to see if they can learn what it has to teach: to choose a focused life.  Have universities, by so catering to students’ and parents’ anxieties, accepted their students’ distraction by social media unreflectively?  The “attentional commons” of higher education has always faced competition, but now faces determined competitors armed with the specific agenda to “consume as much of [their students] time and attention as possible” (Sean Parker).

Universities can reclaim their cultural relevance when they come to understand that the greatest threat to education today is not careerism, financial instability, or political hostility, but distraction.  If higher education will ever offer a coherent alternative to a depressed and frazzled generation, it will have to engage the power corporate and cultural forces that want to hold students, faculty, and staff hostage to engineered, hyper-palatable mental pseudo-stimuli.  This engagement will have to be smart, flexible, subtle, and persistent if we are to challenge the fast food of social media with the slow cookery of a strenuous education.

The past few months have shown that Facebook and other social media sites are hardly invincible and certainly not foundational, as they face sharp-eyed scrutiny from public, government, and investors alike.  Now is the time for higher education to step up to the challenge of distraction.

Where is this wisdom to be found, and where is the source of this understanding?

  1. Critical Attention, Disruptive Humility, and Analog Reality

Much fuller responses come from a varied handful of writers.  Gary Rogowski and Michael Crawford return to attention required by the physical world of objects, activities, and pleasures that live on despite the blandishments of the digital.  Rogowski’s title and subtitle reveals his point: Handmade: Creative Focus in an Age of Distraction.  Examining what his life has to teach, the essential facts of his life (like Thoreau), Rogowski finds a correspondence between our hands and our thoughts: “Long ago we learned to think by using our hands, not the other way around.”  The sheer physicality of “analog” asks us “to give good evidence of yourself. Do good work.”

Craftsmanship “must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”  Crawford believes “the mechanical arts have a special significance of our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness.  Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.”  Sheer physicality, the recalcitrance of the real, is a way of learning the humility of attention. As Rogowski puts it, “situated among our fellows in norms and practices that shape a life, the environment matters.”

The humility of attention is not new. Alexander Langlands inquired into the origins and true meanings of traditional crafts, he bumped into the embeddedness of craeft, an Old English word connoting an amalgam of knowledge, power, and skill, extended to a sense of wisdom and resourcefulness. “We can’t put our finger on exactly what craeft was.”  As an archaeologist, he constantly studies material culture, the “deep time signatures” of so many traditional crafts.  They remind him, “we are makers, and that we have always lived in a world of making.”  The cognitive contemplation of making exercise the mind in silence and solitude.  Craeft is a form of intelligence, an ingenuity through which we can think, contemplate, and be: powerful, resourceful, and knowledgeable through the medium of making in a world of diminishing resources and increasing environmental instability.  To be craefte is all about a mindful life achieved through beautiful simplicity: the humility of attention, failure, and persistence.

Craeft provides a high-touch physical higher education.  It pays attention to the reality of physical, tangible materials as they both shape and respond to human desires, needs, and intentions.  Langlands’ “deep time signatures” are written with the ink of character on the paper of experience, an in-this-moment contact with forms of past life and future practice that transcend any individual’s encounters.  In the 21st century, is this mere nostalgia, or wishful thinking?

Jaron Lanier, one of the primary inventors of “virtual reality” practices these deep signatures of time through his music and writing.  Understanding the virtual imitation of reality so deeply, Lanier wrestles with actual reality acutely: difficult-to-play ancient instruments such as the begena (ancient harp), suling (flute), or esraj (sitar)—he has collected over a thousand.  He doubles down on being human by re-learning the ancient crafts of playing, the deep signatures of time that learning such ancient skills requires.

Lanier’s craeft of music extends to his craeft of writing, and understanding of books.  His Who Owns The Future (2013) concludes with entwined meditations, “The Fate of Books,” and “What Is To Be Remembered?”  Having watched the disruption of the music business and unintentional (but devastating) impoverishment of musicians, Lanier see a similar pattern dveloping regarding reading and writers.  Six years later, his hopes, fears, and expectations for books are fascinating: some have already come true.  Among them:

  • Readers will be second-class citizens (because ownership of a printed copy has become a contract of access to digital content; the reader is left no capital, nothing to resell –a rejection of a true market economy);
  • Many books will be available only via a particular device, such as a particular company’s tablet (think: Kindle, Nook, or digital rights protection such as Adobe Digital Editions);
  • Readers will spend a lot of time hassling with forgotten passwords, expired credit cards, or being locked into the wrong device . . . for years at a time;
  • People will pay less to read . . . while people will earn still less from writing (repeating a pattern seen in music and other media in which “software swallows everything”);
  • By the time books have mostly gone digital, the owners of the top Internet servers . . . will be more powerful and richer than they were before.

What does Lanier see about a book that is worth saving?  A book is not an artifact, but a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity (my italics).  To Lanier, the pattern of devaluation and exploitation of “content” (music, literature) feels off-kilter and short-sighted. The network that fails to recognize and preserve human continuity will serve only its masters, just as digital music has fostered a dehumanization of music.  When the human role is reduced to producing “output” (or “content”) just like a collective or algorithm, and when a winner-takes-all market-place ideology becomes the sole means of valuation, the very qualities that make music or literature, reading or writing, humanely worthwhile are simply sidelined, as irrelevant externalities.  To paraphrase the famous declaration from Vietnam, “we had to burn this art form to price it.”

Lanier proposes this (potentially offensive) thought experiment: “Would you want to send a collectively programmed robot to have sex on your behalf because it was better than you, or would you want to have the sex yourself and get better by doing?” Too often Lanier has heard in response, “I’d prefer to have the best available robot,” silently passing over the nexus of data, servers, technological finance, and market ideology that make that choice seem preferable. By analogy, “If market pricing is the only legitimate test of quality, why are we still bothering with proving theorems?” Why don’t we just let the market determine whether a theorem is true?”  Content-by-algorithm or -collective is slow suicide for creators and researchers and slow homicide for everyone else.  Lanier concludes, “I am arguing that there is more than one way to build an information economy, and we’ve chosen the self-destructive option.”

“Content” at market price seems to be so easily available.  For example, printed books are still common.  Hyper-focused on “content-creation” and marketplace valuation, the “siren servers” of technology obscure how each book bears the marks of the deep signatures of time.  A modern book is a carefully crafted, progressively evolving artifact that only implies the depth of human continuity and experience in its design.  If you doubt this, just look at books printed a century or two ago to see the differences in design and the evolution of writers’ and readers’ expectations.  The book is a synthesis of fully realized personhood with the human continuity signed with time’s deep signatures. A printed book simply transposed into a digital reader as some kind of file bring convenience at the cost of interaction (annotating, bookmarking, easy page-to-page comparison or reference –and the present alternatives to those activities in software are simply dreadful).  A time may come when a digital book represents human continuity –but not yet nor for a long while.  We are creatures of touch and smell as well as sight, hearing, and taste.

I believe Lanier’s insight (that books and other media are syntheses “of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity”) foregrounds the odd and enlightening “revenge of the analog” (David Sax’s book). The return of “disrupted” technologies (prominently but not only vinyl recordings, paper books, film photography, and board games) is possible not only because digital versions work so well, but because they work too well.  Convenience becomes a trap, a mirage of experience rather than genuine experience. Sax’s different narrative shows that technological innovation is not an inevitable and irreversible march, but “a series of trials that helps us understand who we are and how we operate.”  The overwhelming superiority of digital media ironically leads to a shift of valuing: an older technology can sometimes work better, and its inconvenience and inefficiency becomes its renewed strength.  Print publishing, retail sales, on-site workers in a vibrant community (such as Shinola in Detroit), on-ground education, face-to-face interaction in meetups, book clubs, meditation groups, summer camps—all of these ideas and practices have proven surprisingly resilient.  Resilience cannot charm away real difficulties: no analog Dr. Pangloss!  But it does suggest that a popular narrative of irresistible disruption might not be all there is; resilience is an alternative to battle-field metaphors of victory and defeat.

The worship of disruptive technologies (and disruption in general) can go too far. “Disruptive innovation” may not in fact be the rule, but the exception.  Clayton Christiansen’s celebrated theory is not beyond criticism (by his Harvard colleague Jill Lepore) and equally cogent alternatives (Harvard colleague Michael Porter’s theories of competitive strategy and advantage).  Very recently Alfred University president Mark Zupan called Christiansen’s bluff.  Christiansen has doubled down on his 2011 prediction that as many as half of American universities would close or go bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.  Zupan has wagered $1 million, to be given to Christiansen’s non-profit Institute if at least half of all traditional universities fail or merge by 2030; if not, Christiansen would contribute the same sum to Alfred University’s endowment.  Will Christiansen be willing to put his money where his mouth is?  (See also this previous blog entry.)

The humility of paying careful attention to deeply fallible and human face-to-face encounters and processes calls the bluff of technologism –the belief that (often disruptive) technology will cure all woes, a new variety of traditional snake-oil wonders (climate change: “there’s an app for that!”).  Ryan Raffaelli (also from Harvard Business School) has studied how new value can be created for “old innovations” –a subtle and delightful riposte.  Raffaelli has studied, in particular, how the Swiss watch industry saved itself by reinventing its identity: a technology re-emergence.  Swiss watchmakers who survived the competition of cheaper imports saw prices for mechanical watches up for auction increase dramatically.  Suddenly they realized: there could still be value latent in an older technology re-conceived as a social and cultural fashion signal.  Just when the Apple watch might have swept away the Swiss watch industry, instead the watch industry revived as a progression for those who, having worn an Apple watch, now wanted something up-market that feels and signals “genuine.”  As went Swiss watches, so have fountain pens (Goulet Pens), notebooks (Moleskine), and independent bookstores, now numbering more than in 2012.

Here—at last!—is an opening for liberal arts education.

  1. Analog Liberal Arts Education Against the Grain: Digital Minimalism in Action

The term “liberal arts” now seems so old-fashioned or vague that it has been seen to impede further conversation.  I once spoke with the president of a well-regarded liberal arts college who claimed that she no longer tried to use the term, because no one knows what it means.  Her view discounts the real value of the phrase “liberal arts education,” ambiguous and elusive, which has thus resisted facile, ideological characterization. The ambiguity is the impediment that re-conceives value.  The word “liberal” in this case means something far older than the tired liberal-versus-conservative polarization that disfigures (or has destroyed) public discourse: liberal as in liberating, free-making, getting disentangled from the sloppy shortcuts of everyday thinking.  “Liberal arts” connotes a narrative of thoughtful practices out of synch with careerism and digital maximalism.

The narrative of the liberal arts, a braid of habits and practices from (inter alia) classical antiquity, medieval universities, American colleges in the New National period, and the rise of sciences and social sciences in Progressive era, is an amalgam that is unavoidably counter-cultural. Powerful ideologies, whether arising from crown, state, church, market, or faction have always arrayed themselves against it.  Overt ideologies are the obvious culprits, but equally antagonistic have been the subtle habits and dispositions that can cloak the subtle, slippery demands of power, position, and fortune.  The “liberal arts” have been both the servants of power and privilege and a primary source of their interrogation. This both/and contradiction or ambiguity, with a strong whiff of the impractical, means that contemporary marketplace ideology can hardly avoid patronizing liberal arts higher education as outmoded, expensive, boring, elitist, wasteful, and ideologically suspect.  That suspicion shows exactly why liberal arts higher education meets a critical need for pause and reflection in an ideologically riven time.  Being a thoughtful, humane person has never been easy.

What are the liberal arts?  Many answers have been proposed that, following William Cronon’s insight, come down to lists: essential facts, mandatory readings, curricular requirements, etc.  The original artes liberales were a medieval list of seven subjects that set male aristocrats off from everyone else.  Corresponding modern lists of competencies are scarecly inspiration and carry the odor of the curricular committee: competencies in commmunication, major modes of thought (science, mathematics, arts, social sciences, etc.), cultural heritages, etc.  Nevertheless, Cronon cannot resist making another list, ten personal qualities which he associates with people that seem to embody the values of a liberal education (here only several):

  1. They listen and they hear;
  2. They read and they understand;
  3. They can talk with anyone;
  4. They can write clearly, persuasively, and movingly . . .
  1. They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism. . .
  1. They follow E.M. Forster’s injunction from Howards End: “Only connect . . .”

(The ones left out here are necessary as well: read Cronon’s short essay)

All of these personal qualities are well associated with the analog, “real” world –contra the critics who see “reality” only as an excuse for performative hard-headedness.  Cronon:

A liberal education is not something any of us achieve; it is not a state.  Rather it is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance, a way of groping toward wisdom in full recognition of our own folly, a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete.

Cronon then emphasizes that each of these qualities is also education for human community:

Each of the qualities I have described is a craft or a skill or a way of being in the world that frees us to act with greater knowledge or power. . . . [W]e need to confront one further paradox about liberal education. In the act of making us free, it also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves.

Cronon’s “craft, skill, or way of being in the world” returns to craeft: a way of living that bears the deep signatures of time, that nurtures the craeft of attention, humility, and human continuity.  This is the real point of a liberal arts college education –that it cannot be achieved or stated in four years, but is a life-long way of living in the face of our own knowledge and ignorance, wisdom and folly, and inevitably incomplete connection.  Only connect: human freedom of the service of human community, human continuity.

Matthew Crawford proposes a fruitful metaphor for connection: the cultural jig.  The metaphor’s origins lie in carpentry: “a jig is a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time, without his having to think about it.” For example, a jig can guide a saw, so that a carpenter need not measure many boards individually.  A cultural jig can contribute to personal character “that is built through habit, becoming a reliable pattern of responses to a variety of situations:” such as (historically) thrift, parental authority, personal accountability.  Tradition can be a robust cultural jig, fostering a community of practice in which real independence through interdependence does seem to become possible (though never guaranteed).  The conundrum is that real freedom and self-mastery require some dependence on and mastery of cultural jigs, such as attentiveness.  When a liberal arts education is effective, a student (or graduate) is never adverse to seeking, genuine cultural jigs to guard against folly, foibles, and simple ignorance.

This line of thinking can get very woolly very fast (and maybe already has).  It can have real-world consequences, such as careful thinking about what makes work meaningful.  British business researchers Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden have done research to discover what does, in fact, make work meaningful, and their conclusions bear striking similarity to the consequences of a liberal arts education.

How and why do people find their work meaningful? When:

  • work matters to more people than just to the workers themselves, or their bosses;
  • when it can mean engagement with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just euphoria or happiness, and a sense of coping with sometimes intractable challenges;
  • when meaningfulness in work is allowed to emerge in an episodic rather than scripted, sustained way, in moments that are not forced or managed, but “contain high levels of emotion and personal relevance, and thus become redolent of the symbolic meaningfulness of work;”
  • when workers have the time and space to become reflective, as meaningfulness can be realized over time rather than spontaneously or momentarily;
  • when the feeling of engagement is exactly a feeling or personal contribution in an organizational environment of tasks and responsibilities, formed in a narrative of engagement and satisfaction.

By contrast work becomes meaningless when connections are broken: people from their values; leaders from subordinates; pointless tasks without connection to any real problem; over-riding people’s better judgment; disconnection from personal relationships; exposure to personal harm (disconnection from safety and well-managed risk).  Organizations can cultivate meaningful work by stressing personal connections, well-delegated responsibilities, real-world problems, real-world beneficiaries, and recognized accomplishments.

Such meaningful work can become the occasion of the personal attributes that William Cronon identified in liberally educated individuals (above).  These can well be extended in context of work to build the practice of forgiveness, as Rogowski illumines it: “Screwing up is a given. Forgiveness is not. Unless you practice it.”  A liberal arts education is an ideal way to learn how to fail, since it is a given that one will fail, but also how to recover and go on.  An education that teaches how to fail, however, is neither what a college admissions officer wants to represent, nor what the anxious parents of a high-school senior want to hear.

Only connect: human, working freedom in the service of a good greater than mere organizational continuity, a craeft that conserves and strengthens human continuity.  The imperative to connect is, in a vital sense, a powerful cultural jig.

But can you make a living doing this?  The predominant narrative in American society now is that a liberal arts education is a frivolous waste or élite privilege that prepares a young person poorly for the “real world” (always taken to mean: the grimly hyper-competitive world that the writer envisions for everyone else).  It a liberal arts education of little value in “today’s world?”

A recent Mellon Foundation study answers: no: a liberal arts education incurs costs and permits benefits on par with pre-professional degrees.  This is a carefully nuanced study that looks carefully at what constitutes a liberal arts education, and that mere attendance at a liberal arts college is not always a good proxy.  It tries to control for factors such as parental income and achievement, college selectivity, typical incomes in various professions, and other factors.  It warns that observed correlations do not prove causations, since in any case no real control group is available to perform a meaningful (or even ethical) experiment.  Nevertheless, “claims that liberal education is of little value because it does not lead to employment is clearly not supported by the existing data.”  At the same time: more work needs to be done.

All this seems a long way from digital minimalism –or is it? I am convinced that one of the best ways to counter simplistic digital maximalism –a vague giving “people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook) is exactly the craeft of connection that bears the deep signatures of time in human continuities in a variety of media.

A liberal arts education is analog in a digital world: intentionally inconvenient as a strategy for identifying enduring value.  The power of a “digital cleanse” (Newport) is vastly increased when a liberal arts education can provide genuine alternatives and powerful cultural jigs: engagement with real people, over-arching, important questions, and intractable problems.  Screwing up is a given. Forgiveness is not. Practicing craeft is a jig of attention, humility, forgiveness, failing and moving beyond failure, human continuity in a real community.  Only connect.

Resources linked or mentioned in this blog entry:

Allen, Mike. “Sean Parker unloads on Facebook, ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,’” Axios, November 9, 2017

Bailey, Catherine, and Adrian Madden. “What Makes Work Meaningful—Or Meaningless.” MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2016.

Christiansen, Clayton M., Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald.  “What is Disruptive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, December 2015.

Crawford, Matthew B.  Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Penguin Books, 2009,  especially pages 41-42.

Crawford, Matthew B.  The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction,  Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2015, especially pages 8-20.

Cronon, William.  “’Only Connect’ . . . The Goals of a Liberal Education,” The American Scholar 67, Autumn 1998 (full-text available on his website)

Ginsberg, David, and Moira Burke. “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time of Social Media Bad for Us?” Facebook Newsroom, December 15, 2017

Harris, Tristan. “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind—from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist,” Medium: Thrive Global, May 18, 2016

Hill, Catherine B., and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta.  The Economic Benefits and Costs of a Liberal Arts Education.  An essay commission by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation under the auspices of the Mellon Research Forum on the Value of Liberal Arts Education.  The Foundation, 2019.

Langlands, Alexander.  Craeft: an Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: Norton, 2018.

Lanier, Jaron.  Who Owns the Future? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Lederman, Doug. “Clay Christensen, Doubling Down,: Inside Higher Ed, April 28, 2017.

Lepore, Jill. “The Disruption Machine: What The Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” New Yorker, June 23, 2014.

Lewis, Paul. “’Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: the Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia,” The Guardian October 6, 2017

Porter, Michael. “The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy.” Harvard Business Review, January 2008.

Raffaelli, Ryan and Carmen Nobel.  “How Independent Bookstores of Thrived in Spite of”  Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge, November 20, 2017.

Raffaelli, Ryan.  Technology Reemergence: Creating New Markets for Old Technologies, Swiss Mechanical Watchmaking 1970-2008.  Administrative Science Quarterly, May 2018.

Rogowski, Gary. Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction.  Fresno, California: Linden Publishing, 2017.

Sax, David, The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.  New York: Public Affairs, 2016.

Sullivan, Andrew.  “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York, September 2016

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, especially the first chapter, “Economy”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017.

Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads, New York Vintage Books, 2017, especially pages 11-17.

Zupan, Mark.  “Betting on (Non-Profit) Higher Education,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 28, 2019.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep WorkDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport. New York:  Grand Central (Hachette), 2016.  296 p.  ISBN 978-1-4555-8669-1 $28.00 list

Cal Newport became a guru of study hacks after publishing Study Hacks, two other books, a dissertation, and six articles.  Clearly “do as I say and as I do,” he knows his subject.  Deep Work extends his thinking to sharper critique of the glut of social information that distracts many people.

Newport is especially sharply critical of Facebook (including the new Facebook headquarters building), Twitter, and the well-recognized Fear of Missing Out (FOMA) that can drive compulsive distraction and seriously erode the quality and quantity of work.  His critique is well-sustained, but its claims to be counter-cultural or disruptive are overblown: numerous other writers have critiqued the culture of distraction, including Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Sherry Turkle.

Newport’s positive formulation of deep work betrays a certain ambivalence at the heart of the book.  Deep work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.  These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”(p. 3)  By contrast shallow work is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”)(p. 6) His hypothesis: "the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare . . . [and] valuable . . . . The few who cultivate this skill with thrive."(p. 14)  His goal: to help you be one who can work deeply, a noble aim.   His examples are not always convincing, however.

His leading example (which opens the book), Carl Jung’s creation of Bollingen Tower as a retreat for his writing, is more multi-faceted than Newport suggests.  Jung retreated to his tower to write without distraction, but based in large part on his interaction with patients in Zurich.  Later Newport identifies Jung’s “bimodal” pattern, contrasting the Tower with Zurich, a “busy clinical practice,” “gave and attended many lectures,” “active participant in the Zurich coffeehouse culture,” all suggesting to Newport the hyper-connected, digital-age knowledge worker: “replace ‘Zurich’ with ‘San Francisco’ and ‘letter’ with ‘tweet’ and we could be discussing some hotshot tech CEO.” (p. 107)

I think this is a serious, ideologically-driven misunderstanding of Jung’s life in Zurich, and life's work.  Jung’s own writings are filled with episodes, instances, and cases from his practice in Zurich.  To suggest that Jung’s work in Zurich was “shallow work” devalues his clinical practice and Jung’s whole motivation for developing depth psychology and disputes with Sigmund Freud.  The ideas and art work Jung picked up in his Zurich life provided some of the critical raw material from which he fashioned his singular and valuable insights in the Tower.  Suggesting that Jung’s beautifully written letters are the work equivalent of contemporary tweets is simply preposterous and and fundamentally misconstrues Jung’s life’s work.  Valuable as Jung's deep concentration in the Tower was, it never would have amounted to much without his corresponding life in the city.

Newport's other examples (Adam Grant, Jack Dorsey for example) probably work better, but tend towards the two-dimensional.  This valuable book has to be read with caution.

Cal-newport-media-kit-smallIn the end, I am left with the uneasy sense that Newport’s beloved “deep work” is really what computer scientists do.  (He is an associate professor at Georgetown.) His concept of deep work is less applicable to those whose work is primarily leading people and organizations.  I know in my own work as a library director that sometimes I have to work on a project uninterrupted.  Some interruptions are shallow, but some definitely deep: the work I do listening to coworkers, helping them develop their ideas, skill and insights, indeed pushes my cognitive and emotional capabilities, improves my abilities, is hard to replicate mechanically, and (I hope) creates value.  Every encounter with a colleague is not deep work, but I always have to be alert to the moment when it turns deep, sometimes on a dime.

I completely accept Newport’s critique of the numerous, superficial distractions of social media, e-mail, and news, and the confusion of busyness with productivity.  But his concept of deep work needs broadening and humanizing. This seems to be the work of a very confident and highly creative young professor appropriately characterized as brilliant, creative, and important, but whose very brilliance and confidence may have drawn him towards an unnecessarily narrow conception of generosity, significance, and depth of insight.  I wonder how his ideas will change over time, work, and experience.  I would really like to find out, because it will be important.