Learning the Wrong Lesson from the Amish – Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World offers a digital detoxification program for the harried and distracted. In addition to providing a step-by-step guide for fasting from technology, he also offers ways for thinking through what technologies and platforms we use and why. I’m drawn to the way he thinks about technology, especially the downsides of social media, and I’ve learned a lot form his blog and especially from his book Deep Work. It was in Deep Work where I first encountered The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges, and that book has been the subject of my last few blog posts. There are many helpful things in Digital Minimalism, many practical things to think about, and as always with Newport, nice summative aphorisms, like “clutter is costly”, that help drive the message home.

However, reading Newport’s assessment of the Amish community and their approach to technology struck me as symptomatic of some of the problems with books like this. To put a name to it, most books like this speak in terms both grand and vague about personal values and how discerning and living by these values is the golden key that unlocks every door. It is through the lens of values that Newport reads the Amish community’s approach to technology, saying, “The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

What I find interesting in his analysis is that he places the emphasis on the values, rather on the community itself because for him the community is mostly problematic. While he discerns that there is something to learn from the Amish about approaching technology, he ends by hedging his bets. At the end of the discussion, Newport wonders “whether this value persists even when we eliminate the more authoritarian impulses of these communities”. And this is exactly where I would have liked him to push further. The threat of the authoritarian clouds his vision, I think, from what is really interesting in the example, which is not values themselves, but the thickness of community itself. Newport hopes to extract all the possible benefits of communal discernment, and to eliminate all possible, and probably very real down sides. Speaking like a true individualist, he looks past the meaning of community itself and the possibility of discerning together, and concludes instead “the sense of meaning…comes from acting with intention” (56). But in the Amish community, the willingness to surrender certain technologies is not intended to pursue a sense of meaning or to live by values in the abstract, but to enact an already present sense of belonging.

His approach assumes that values are free floating, that they are not embedded in communities themselves, and as free floating they can theoretically be extricated from one context and simply applied in another. But the reality of community is that values are not abstractions, and they are not self-determined. Rather they are woven into the community itself. And, yes, this can have a dark side, and yes there is the possibility of authoritarianism, but such is the risk of community itself. For good or for ill, depending on your perspective, the community itself speaks into the life of the individual. These things are not determined in isolation, and this can of course bring comfort and clarity, but it also means that the community may very well, and most certainly does, say no to things that you as an individual might say yes to.

It is not just a they who discern, but a we who not only discern, but more simply live the values. It is a communal act, and moreover, the values are not piecemeal, the values themselves are communal, they are a shared horizon to navigate by. But here is the rub, in the Newport model, I determine my own horizon, and I’m supposed to say no to myself simply on the basis of my own values, which are self-determined. But I know for myself, and assume for most others, such values are often not really enough of a reason to say no to myself. How thin is a self-determined value?

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