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Cal Newport on Why We'll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes (gq.com)
246 points by dhh2106 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 160 comments

Related tangent: Newport's book "Deep Work" is excellent.

It makes a strong case that deep work is increasingly rare, valuable, and meaningful. But it goes way beyond the "what" and the "why", providing the "how", in the form of specific, pragmatic, actionable guidance for achieving just that. Anecdotally, it's been very helpful for me.

This book follows the recent trend of: find obvious slightly un-talked-about idea, create a fancy sounding term to describe it (preferably with as few words as possible - one is best, like Blink or Outliers.) These words should be vague and have hundreds of meanings - 'work', 'deep', or 'source', for example. Then, while you could summarize the idea in a single page, write 100+ pages framing the issue as a fundamental shift in one's perception. Finally, go on a media tour to promote it.

Newport is on a 3-book contract[1] on more or less the same subject with slightly different framing. So he's obliged to drum-up attention about it. Also as someone else pointed out in a different thread, Newport places too much attention on "quantity"; it doesn't sit quite well with me.

Yes, his bigger point is entirely valid (and I appreciate him bringing it to our attention), but no—there is not enough material to write three damn books. Take inspiration from Kahneman, he condensed his 40-year work (in collaboration with Tversky) into one book.

As I've noted on HN before, I'd much rather recommend the book by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's (or Prof. C): Flow—the psychology of optimal experience

Prof. C has defined the idea of "flow" (he discusses it in various contexts, including human well-being), and dedicated his entire life to studying it. IMHO, the signal-to-noise ratio is extremely high in this book—no wonder, it was Prof. C's seminal work.

[1] http://calnewport.com/about/

I wholeheartedly second your opinion on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book. In fact, I liked the book so much I even tried to condense it into somewhat of a summary [1]. The book is thought to be a Modern Classic, and at least in my opinion, it deserves the title. Deep Work has some interesting ideas, but is not yet time-proven, whereas Flow is.

Just my 2 cents ;-)

[1] https://skorbenko.github.io/books/books/flow.html

Does Prof. C also discuss the benefits of mixing focused time with communication and idea exchange time? E.g: closed door work with open work areas.

I encountered a similar idea in "The New Science of Building Great Teams" by Alex Pentland, where the concept of exploration is introduced: "The best team players also connect their teammates with one another and spread ideas around. And they are appropriately exploratory, seeking ideas from outside the group but not at the expense of group engagement".

Not quite. In my view, Prof. C's work is more fundamental in nature; he doesn't prescribe anything particular. But describes what works, based on his observations, and lets us judge for ourselves.

Among other things, he goes in detail (with studies backing up his points) on what provides "optimal experience" to humans. And covers topics like "order in consciousness", "sense of self", "entropy", "freedom", "purpose", and so on.

A couple of random quotes from my notes:

(1) "The inevitable consequence of equally attractive choices is uncertainty of purpose; uncertainty, in turn, saps resolution, and lack of resolve ends up devaluing choice. Therefore fredom does not necessarily help develop meaning in life—on the contrary."

(2) "There is one very important and at first apparently paradoxical relationship between losing the sense of self in a flow experience, and having it emerge stronger afterward. It almost seems that occasionally giving up self-consciousness is necessary for building a strong self-concept. Why this should be so is fairly clear. In flow a person is challenged to do her best, and must constantly improve her skills. At the time, she doesn’t have the opportunity to reflect on what this means in terms of the self—if she did allow herself to become self-conscious, the experience could not have been very deep. But afterward, when the activity is over and self-consciousness has a chance to resume, the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements."

Thanks, yes, this. Rel to your 2nd quote, an explanation might be found in the "experiencing self" vs "remembering self", which IIRC Kahneman mentions in the intro to "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow."

Yes, that is is one my favorite stories from Kahneman. If you look up "The riddle of experience vs. memory", you can hear Kahneman himself narrating it.

This is a good book but also could be summed up in a few pages.

Afraid, I completely disagree. How could you meaningfully "sum up" someone's lifetime's worth of work into a couple of pages and explain the related complexity? (Not talking about academic abstract-style summaries.) Prof. C is cited many thousands of times (did a quick look up on Google Scholar) in well-being and motivation studies. On the other hand, for Newport this is a "side hustle", because his primary work is supposed to be a "computer science professor".

Time will tell which book provides durable value.

Sometimes a fundamental idea is simple, but it takes repeated hammering into your mind before you adopt it. 95% of a book might seem like fluff, but when you read the 1 example, the 1 anecdote, or the 1 "way of saying it" that resonates with you - that's often when the idea sticks and becomes a more permanent part of your life.

Expanding an idea into book form helps more people discover that "aha" moment than a single blog post does. Plus, people just take books more seriously in general!

This is the reason I prefer books instead of blog posts.

With blog posts, you can surely cover the breath of multiple topics but its totally worth to go repeat an fundamentally important idea with multiple scenarios.

Though I completely agree with your sentiment, Cal explicitly defines the meaning of Deep Work, and I think it's an important thing society should think about as technology progresses. It helps to have the terminology to describe the state of our lives.

From page 3 of the book, Deep Work:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

At least read the book before you trash it.

I read 75% of it, does that make me qualified to trash on it? I thought it was complete garbage. Not the idea, mind you, the _book_. It's a blog post's worth of information that's comically stretched out in an early college I'm-trying-to-meet-a-word count way.

The book is almost entirely pointless fluff.

When I was in some philosophy classes in college I developed my "theory of bullshit".

Basically, when I'm reading your work explaining your theory, if I go through two full pages without encountering a new idea, your work is bullshit.

This doesn't apply to providing EXAMPLES of your theory, and a theory is often many new ideas so that explaining it will take many pages, but if I read 2 pages of explanation and don't find a single new idea - you're wasting my time and trying to build agreement without specificity.

Now, far too many years later, I am both amazed at the raw audacity of my younger self...and how accurate he was in finding which works would be more or less satisfying to read. While I generally prefer escapism in my reading, my virtual and physical shelves have no shortage of books that I've only read the first few chapters of, because of diminishing returns for the effort of reading them.

You should check out the book "On Bullshit" by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. He develops a similar theory.

Frankfurt's theory/definition of bullshit has literally nothing to do with fluff.

I had the exact same reaction to it. Some enormous fraction of all non-fiction is an essay-length idea stretched out into a book length. It's disrespectful to the reader, but it's what they need to do to make a sale. No one wants to buy a pamphlet

It's especially disrespectful when the books are being market to people who want to be efficient.

>The book is almost entirely pointless fluff.

I thought it was a great read, fascinating, I learned a lot, it made me think, and I've been recommending it to selected people who I think would benefit as a must read etc. So I'm just wrong? You didn't learn anything, great, doesn't mean it's "complete garbage".

I don't understand this need (that I frequently see expressed on HN) to have the most packed into the absolute least number of lines. Do people hate reading or something? Sure, you could leave out the stories, the anecdotes about various places and styles of work..but what would be the point?! Indeed, leave out almost everything and almost nothing would be left. That is not surprising. That La Rochefoucauld or Mandeville can be summed up in a phrase doesn't make them less worth reading.

It’s garbage not for the ideas, but for all of the filler. There is no need for Newport to pad out a simple thesis and tips with anecdotes on modern day blacksmiths and tangents on how to memorize decks of cards. Maybe calling it garbage is harsh, but the book is definitely overrated and should be called out as such amidst all of the breathless hype for it on HN.

This applies to almost every self help or business help book popular nowadays. I just listen to or read summaries.

I also thought the topic seemed too thin to stretch into a full book, and I almost didn't read it. But I'm glad I did. I agree with other commenters that the signal-to-noise ratio was surprisingly high.

The few 'new idea' type books I've found to be useful are rather thin, printed on cheap paper, and have rather large text.

Even they are padded out, but at least a bit less so.

The problem is, I don't think people will pay $30 for a 50 page book, even if the ideas inside it are worth the money.

Yeah, Seth Godin is really good at writing books that pack a punch with few pages.

Seems like the state of flow, redefined in a professional context.

Newport make the same comparison in the book. I personally think about it such that "flow" is the verb to produce "deep work", the noun.

I also highly recommend his book.

That describes every "self-help" type book, where you take a single positive but novel concept or attribute, and find a way to talk about it long enough to fill something that can be printed and sold in airport bookstores.

Eckhart Tolle has written a dozen+ books about being in the moment, for instance.

That's probably the worst aspect of Deep Work - it's written as a full-fledged pop psych self-help NYT bestseller, lacking the pithiness and the precision of his blog.

One hack around is to search the author on Youtube. You will usually find a 5-10 min interview during the book tour where the author has to distill the book into quick soundbites. You can then decide if the book is worth reading. For more complex topics on physics, biology you'll often find an hour long talk which covers all the material in the book. At 1.5x speed on Youtube you can save a lot of time screening out BS.

Which is why I have trouble reading pretty much any of the top business books.

Fluff, fluff and more fluff. Repetitive anecdotes, personal experiences etc etc. I just can’t pretend I’m interested.

Your definition also applies to Design Patterns!

I hear you. I even agree, that some parts of this book do, annoyingly, do exactly what you describe. But, on the whole, it's a compelling message from which many people (including myself) stand to learn, and benefit.

The book is good, but could've been one long blog post. It also sadly is not very relevant for many workers. Dr Newport is a tenured, famous professor. He sets his own schedule and probably works by himself.

I'm an average tech worker in an open office. My office is quieter and more peaceful than most, but I can rarely get much "deep work" in. Meetings, Slack, etc. I have no door I can close and isolate myself with. I assume this is the case with most engineering roles so the usual HN advice of "find another job" doesn't apply.

That said, I still get things done fairly well, so I'm not complaining. I've used his techniques and ideas in my free time when I read, program, etc.

He's been writing about and practicing these ideas since he was a grad student with no publications, well before having tenure. I actually think his early blog posts are substantially better and more detailed than his later books, e.g: http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/07/

I have a similar office but I've made efforts over the years to engineer my environment to support deep work. I'd started doing this before I read that book but increased my efforts after. If you really believe it's important you can usually make it happen. I have good buy-in from my teams.

Details: desk facing a wall or window. Failing that, a 3-sided divider. Earplugs plus headphones. Skim my emails once every hour or so and leave notifications off otherwise. When I'm not trying to do deep work, headphones off so people know they can approach me. Nuclear option: work from home one or two days a week.

If you really think you can't get away with these things, then maybe you do need to find a new job where you're less micromanaged and more evaluated on results.

Blocking no-meeting times, scheduling times to check slack or email, staying vigilant about declining, shortening, canceling meetings are all techniques to help free up contiguous blocks of time for focused work. Though they shouldn’t have required a book I’ve seen Deep Work and PG’s Makers Schedule post be used to justify ICs making this space.

Really though, I do found that the book is just stating the obvious most of the times, and I wonder at all the praise it is getting here. Some of his ideas on memorization and his methods to structure thoughts, were non-ideas, or perhaps just low level trickery, and nothing fundamental.

While Newport's idea is solid, the book really isn't worth reading past the first 50-75 pages, where the majority of the ideas are communicated. Unfortunately, bloat is a problem in almost all types of management/self-improvement books, so I don't want to single him out here. I have the same complaint about his earlier book, "So Good they Can't Ignore you".

Yes, it was, in fact, his advice on working in isolation is one of the best things I have taken. That book has improved my productivity by 12% (i measured)

Right on - 'Deep Work' was very helpful in doing some self-evaluation and priority setting. I just ordered his new book, to be delivered in a week or so when it is released.

Making good evaluations on 'opportunity costs' is key. As I get older I allow more fun time than I used to (I am almost 68).

(Replying to self, bc too late to edit.)

"Newport's book "Deep Work" is excellent" -> Newport's book "Deep Work" makes excellent points.

I've benefited meaningfully from reading it, but also agree w/ many commenters' view that it could've been much more concise.

I enjoyed the book, but when I was done, it felt like it really could have been a blog post. In fact, I pointed people on my team at some summaries of it, and then said if they need more, read the book....

I can confirm/agree with that.

Didnt someone do a summary of that book in like a single page somewhere? As in, there were good ideas but it could be summed up to a short paper. I can't find the link now.

I found that you could do the same for many business books, and had made a site to provide summaries of the books. What sparked me to do it was reading "The No Asshole Rule", which was so devoid of actual content that it could be summed up by its title. It was full of anecdotes and statistics that ended up drawing the wrong conclusion.

So I think this is true, but it is not necessarily a terrible thing. It is one thing to memorize a summary of a book. It is another to engage with and apply the ideas in the summary. The goal of a book is to hopefully give you enough time and space to do that.

Unfortunately, most of the books I've read just have the extra material as filler, and don't lead to much engagement. It was just anecdotes like "the nurses in hospital X reported that their bosses were 30% assholes, and in hospital Y they were 96% assholes, so it's no wonder hospital X saved 49% more patients!" and other non-sequiturs like that.

Whats the site?

There’s a good site that does this called Blinkist. https://www.blinkist.com/en/about/

You’ll need a subscription or trial to Blinkist if you want to view anything other than their daily freebie.

This was years ago, and there wasn't much interest so I took it down.

Would check with Derek Sivers: https://sivers.org/book/DeepWork

I think the point of reading the book is you will see the ideas in the summary, but may not believe they are true. The book is there to convince you through data, logical arguments, and stories that the ideas are true. In addition, repetition is one of the most valuable techniques for actually remembering things.

I read the summaries by Sivers before reading a book and after reading a book, many times. Of course, sometimes I skip the book.

Three sentences: https://www.samuelthomasdavies.com/book-summaries/business/d... I think the author himself has a one page blog post summarizing it as well.

I agree with him about the smartphone cancer that has crept into all our lives though I imagine there will be much worse distractions in the near future like deep learning phones that can tell us everything going on in a room the moment we enter it (since everybody else also has the same device). Permanent HUD like a James Cameron scifi

> deep learning phones that can tell us everything going on in a room

What information would be on this HUD? Do you mean real-time voice analysis?

It was from slides in a deep learning CMU course with examples such as walking into a restaurant with group seating where staff immediately knows your name and preferences/allergies, and you immediately have information on what topic each table is talking about and in what languages (which are automatically translated) what seats are free to sit at, which order is currently being cooked, ect. The idea was a scenario where each room you walk into your device can tell you everything there is to know.

> I think the author himself has a one page blog post summarizing it as well.

Link please.

If you do a search across his blog there's various articles touching on different parts. Here's one such:


Actually, I made something of the sort that you're asking for [1]. Thank you for checking it out, and I would love to hear some healthy criticism!

[1] https://skorbenko.github.io/books/books/flow.html

Sure, and Woody Allen summarized War and Peace in one line: It involves Russia.

Yeah the book is good but I found it to be insanely padded and bloated.

Cigarettes are a flawed analogy. There is no such thing as a "healthy" use of cigarettes. But I would argue that smart phones can be used in a healthy way.

And I would also argue that the phone itself is not the problem. The problem is the reliance on the endorphin hit that comes from a new IM, like, post, etc. Some app makers have optimized their platform for engagement and have consequently made this highly addictive for many people.

But this addiction is much easier to break for most people than an addiction to something like say cigarettes (or even sugar).

> There is no such thing as a "healthy" use of cigarettes.

I don’t think that’s really true. The health effects of a cigarette a week would be indistinguishable from background noise.

The fundamental problem with cigarettes is that they are addictive, and convenient (at one time very convenient), and so it’s easy to smoke more and more. That’s actually very similar to smartphones: their use is addictive, and convenient (you can get a hit at work, in line, in the car, at the store, walking down the street, in bed).

As with tobacco, I believe that the answer is to responsibly use smartphones. Chain-smoking is bad; so too is constantly getting a hit from your smartphone. Smoking a pipe a couple of times a week (or a cigar a couple of times a month) isn’t a problem, and neither is using a smartphone intentionally & deliberately.

I don't think cell phones cause lung cancer or emphysema. The better comparison is to caffeine. Yeah, it's pretty addictive. But it doesn't kill you. That's about where the cell phone is for some people. (And hey, the blue light even screws up your sleep cycle supposedly. As a long-time drinker of caffeine, I don't even HAVE a sleep cycle! Take that, cell phones.)

Also, I am guessing that most doctors would not recommend smoking a pipe a couple times a week. I doubt it's harmless.

Pipes are basically nothing in comparison with cigarettes, though.

My dad's doctor didn't quite recommend he start smoking his pipe again, but he didn't really try to dissuade him, either. It enhances his experience and he's old enough that any remaining cares about cancer are moot.

Cell phone addiction absolutely causes life threatening risks, like stress, isolation, attention deficit, etc.

> I don’t think that’s really true. The health effects of a cigarette a week would be indistinguishable from background noise.

Is this true? Can you provide a source?

Brb running to the corner store...

The exposure to air pollution from living in a city can be equated to number of cigarettes in terms of cancer risks. Living in San Francisco is about 1/3 cigarette a day, with an average PM2.5 of around 8ug/m^3.



I think you'll find a hard time finding any source which will claim cigarette smoking under some threshold is not bad for you.

But keep in mind cigarette studies use the metric "pack-years" where 1 pack-year means smoking 20 cigarettes a day, for a year. "Heavy" smokers are generally considered as 2+ pack-year smokers. And it's not like _every_ heavy smoker gets lung cancer. In fact "only" 25% of heavy smokers get lung cancer, 5% of "former smokers", and 0.5% of non-smokers get lung cancer. And 40 cigarettes a day is a LOT!

So you can do an extrapolation with the numbers above to estimate a conclusion. I'd be hard-pressed to believe that 1 cigarette per WEEK is even as harmful as living in a big city like NYC or SF.

How many of the ones who don’t get lung cancer also don’t suffer from elevetates rates of bronchial infection, cardiovascular symptoms, COPD or emphysema? How many avoid cancers related to smoking other than lung cancer?

I'd wager that drinking soda daily is more harmful to your health than one single cigarette per week.

The equivalent amount of soda per day that would equate to one cigarette per week? I’d take that bet.

No, one can of soda daily, vs one cigarette smoked per week.

Lung cancer is the least of your problems if you're a smoker.

Smoking greatly increases risks of literally every possible health condition.

(This is why the first question you'll be asked by a doctor is if you smoke or not, no matter what your complaint is.)

>Smoking greatly increases risks of literally every possible health condition.

Is that actually true? Somehow I doubt it, but I'm open to reading research (or whatever) on the question. (I'm taking you literally because you specifically wrote "literally", but maybe you didn't mean it...literally)

>Smoking greatly increases risks of literally every possible health condition.

Actually, cigarette smoking can reduce the incidence of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, endometrial cancer, and Parkinson's, to name a few.

No, I'm not claiming cigarette smoking is good for you. I acknowledge it's very bad for you.

But if you point me towards two people, one who smokes "one cigarette a week" and does light exercise, and a second individual who is sedentary, and drinks alcohol and soda regularly, I'd wager most of my net worth that the 1-cigarette-per-week individual is far healthier. It's possible for something to be very bad for you AND also for the dangers to be overblown.

Medical consensus for most toxins/poisons is LNT - linear no threshold.

The basic idea is that you can perform some interventions at various doses, score the response, and then extrapolate to the origin. In most cases, simple linear regression gets you close to the origin, suggesting a linear response where even small doses has small harmful effects.

The trouble with this is that the data is rarely good enough to really support that model directly, instead you have to extrapolate the data to these smaller doses. This is simply due to variance in the data and errors in experimentation that make small effect sizes extremely hard to suss out. So you're always extrapolating from more extreme data.

For instance, a great deal of fuss has been made about alcohol, and whether moderate consumption (on the order of one drink a day) is actually beneficial. More broadly, this is related to the idea of hormesis, where small exposure to a poison actually confers a benefit, generally explained as coming from a compensatory response in the body. Every so often someone comes out with a new study or meta analysis that claims to be authoritative, but I still remain unconvinced one way or the other about alcohol.


The other issue here is the idea of relative risk. Even if you posit a non-zero harm from infrequent smoking, there are still many 'acceptable' risks that are likely far greater, such as that of road travel, air quality hazards, poor diet, lack of exercise, etc. These are all well understood and clearly outweigh the risk of infrequent smoking, but are 'business as usual', while a great deal of attention is paid to something like smoking, however infrequent.

In that sense, I would agree that it indistinguishable from background noise. But I would also say that there is likely real harm that results from this. In a broader decision-making sense, such minor harms do have a cumulative impact.

I wonder if some people are built such that they can't just put the phone down, similar to how many people really struggle to quit smoking. For those people there may be no "healthy" was to use the product.

Interesting! This is very similar to how I feel about carbohydrates. Some people get addicted but an extremely small portion of the population. I never thought about there being analogues to other non-nutrition related addictive things.

But my 'hit' are alarms, communication with family, news, emails etc

I prefer reading emails on my way. I'm distracted anyway and when I arrive at work, no emails anymore.

> But this addiction is much easier to break for most people than an addiction to something like say cigarettes (or even sugar).

Physically? I presume you're right. But here's the problem; you don't need cigarettes to accomplish any other expected, daily task in your life. You need your phone for a whole bunch of useful tasks that aren't health-depleting. I once read someone explain eating disorders in a similar way. You still need to eat, so you can't simply kick the root of your problem out of your life forever.

Not totally true. Cigarettes are a very effective appetite suppressant. That is one of the reasons why people who work in the food industry all smoke so much.

Obesity has skyrocketed as cigarette and other tobacco use has declined. Obesity also increases the risk for most types of cancer, so it is just trading increased lung cancer risk for some people for increased risk of both heart disease and cancer.

In general nature does not like free lunches. There are costs and trade-offs in everything and smart phones are not an exception to that.

Do you have any source for "That is one of the reasons why people who work in the food industry all smoke so much." ?

As far as I can tell most low wage / manual labor jobs are plagued with cigarette smoking because it allows more breaks / and it's a way to kill time.

Here in germany a lot of 30s people picked up smoking during their mandatory military service (cigarettes were free to avoid creation of black markets, people who smoked had more breaks + herd behavior)

Kitchen work is also extremely “crunch-y” with high stakes blocks of time where any mistakes you make have compounding costs. A stress relief drug like nicotine can help you regulate your mood around that cycle.

There are better ways to regulate mood and stress but most of them can’t be packaged and sold for $5, which makes them unlikely to proliferate under capitalism.

You’re saying it’s not even one of the reasons?

I don't know, I have a hard time thinking someone would go: "I better start smoking these cancer inducing sticks, I've read studies proving they reduce appetite".

I doubt people go out of there way to start new addictions voluntarily, but maybe I'm too hopeful.

If only there was a way to both not smoke and control your appetite, and maybe even eat less processed food while you're at it.

Alas, I guess we'll just have to leave that hard problem to the scientists and philosophers.

I'm really unsure what you're implying. What's the appetite control method you have in mind?

I can tell you that in my experience most barely-processed foods don't do any better at filling me than most processed foods. And some of the worst candidates for appetite control are nuts. So I hope "less processed food" was supposed to be an effect, not the cause.

Actually there are a lot of therapeutic applications for Nicotine. Nicotine can be beneficial for a wide range of psychiatric disorders, and there's evidence it might help with Parkinson's symptoms as well.

afaik nicotine is the addictive substance in cigarettes but it's not the most dangerous.

+ Inhaling any burned matter / fumes will have an impact the lungs.

"Cigarette smoke contains over 7,000 chemical compounds, including arsenic, formaldehyde, cyanide, lead, nicotine, carbon monoxide, acrolein, and other poisonous substances. Over 70 of these are carcinogenic." [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cigarette

Yes that is absolutely true, nicotine is not meaningfully toxic on its own as far as I'm aware.

That said, it doesn't mean it's not dangerous. For instance, Opiates were once thought of as a "perfect anesthetic" because they achieve the desired effect with little to no toxicity, but we've all seen how that played out over the last few decades.

Nicotine is quite toxic at moderately high doses, ask any farmer who works with nicotinoid pesticides, or any ER attending. Nicotine is a potent neurotoxin, it’s just that typical use from smoking and food falls below the threshold for poisoning your nAChRs receptors. However with vaping, that’s no longer the case, especially when people spill their vaping liquid on clothing or skin.

Is tolerance also a factor? My daily average nicotine dose is likely above LD50.

I’m not sure if anyone could give you a clear and complete answer to that for humans. The best data I’m aware of is still pretty limited.


Right, early smartphones without social media were far less addictive. Games were less addictive because it was things like Snake not Fortnite. The other missing piece is "What would people do instead?". If you get rid of your smartphone and replace it with six hours of Netflix, you are probably not any healthier or better off.

OTOH, snake can be played without much effort, where as it requires much patience and effort to play Fortnight. This is something that most of the critical discussion on games seems to be missing. Most computer games require lot of effort and time investment to play, they aren't actually an avenue for instant gratification.

I like to think of smartphones as the "devil's gadget", alluding to the original conceptualization of Satan: the being of natural tendency.

Idle hands...

Ah, yes -- the "healthy" card. Good one! Makes you wonder what if "healthy" meant no phones at all... dang!

I was fortunate to have a childhood without phones, and if I ever have kids myself I want to give them the same experience no matter what it takes.

> no matter what it takes

Hopefully by the time you have kids wisdom highlights why the above is a destructive mentality. So many children are set up for anxiety and pain by their parents imposing so much of their own bullshit on them.

By all means adopt principles that align with your beliefs, but for the love of god numb your ego a touch and realize if you love your children you have to let go of yourself and free them as much as corral and influence them.

Be reasonable, understanding, compassionate, loving and unselfish, and see how 'no matter what it takes' holds up when considering those virtues.

I think you misunderstood what I meant.

> no matter what it takes

That's an effort on my part to sort out of my life to a point where I feel comfortable raising kids. I live a very humble/spiritual life and have no intention of imposing bullshit on my kids or anyone else for that matter.

I do know how that works though because a lot of it happened to me personally in my own family during my upbringing.

If my home is a remote village someplace in South America, then that's just how it is going to be for my kids. I guess, right?

Edit: overshared

Cringe huh...

the classic "we didn't have nice things when I was a child, so I shall socially constrain my children's options in a completely different era in the same way arbitrarily" style of parenting. I'm sure your kids will be grateful and excited /s

And why wouldn't they be excited about living someplace remote, in a nice jungle either in Peru or in Costa Rica? I mean, it's my home, after all, is it not?

Technology, culture, society, and ourselves -- they all change. I have children born over a period of 12 years. What was appropriate and worked for my oldest may not fit or work with my youngest. And that's just one decade. The space between my teen years and my youngest child's teen years is closer to four decades. What was appropriate and worked for me just isn't even possible for my kids.

You'll understand better when you have kids. I hope.

Most people don't actually want a smartphone. Pain in the ass to keep charged, carry it everywhere, not drop it, not lose it.

Everybody generally wants a few core services from their smartphone: send and receive brief messages, directions, ride hailing, listen to a podcast or some streaming service, mobile payments, take photos (perhaps most importantly).

Sometimes some people want the distractions available on a smartphone: watch video, read the news, social media, browse the web, read a book.

Sometimes some people want to Do Work™ on their phone, but the vast majority of the people don't want that, at least outside of their preferred work hours.

I try to do more and more with my Apple Watch/AirPods only, and it's starting the feel like the future depends less and less on having a smartphone. In our Star Trek utopia, your wearable would let you go up to any screen and access your stuff, and these would be in convenient locations, like a public transit stations, cafes, etc.

You'd do work on a purpose built machine for the work you do, one with a lot of buttons if you type a lot, one with a stylus and weird knobs if you do precision work.

The personal smartphone as it currently exists is this weird mandatory liability we're all burdened with, costly in time, attention, and money. They're worse than cigarettes because at least you can carry on a conversation while smoking.

Some people never got one.

People (in physics grad school in the 90s mind you) made fun of me when I had an HP100LX (a pocket sized DOS-5 machine you could carry around) for writing fortran code in microemacs or doing Derive/mathematica trace formulas while away from the terminals. It was also a good PDA and had an ebook reader for killing time on the bus. When I saw people with the early smart phones doing vastly worse than me nerding out on my HP, I knew there was no way I'd get one of those things. I'm on the bloody internet all day as it is for work; no reason to be more connected.

> Everybody generally wants a few core services from their smartphone: send and receive brief messages, directions, ride hailing, listen to a podcast or some streaming service, mobile payments, take photos (perhaps most importantly).

Complete access to a large % of Western civilization's collective knowledge is also kind of nice.

Mostly used for restaurant open hours and random Wikipedia articles. But still.

Knowing where nearby gas stations are, checking when a store closes, comparison price shopping, checking nutrition facts, there are many uses for a smart phone outside of the ones you listed. And, as always, the long tail is long.

Why only Western Civilization? Why not the collected knowledge of all of humanity?

Wikipedia has a Western bias.

Linguistic barriers prevent lots of information from East Asia from being accessible to westeners.

Large portions of the world don't yet have super organized repositories of knowledge.

I totally agree with you on Apple Watch + AirPods: cover so many use cases, and I feel "Star Trek'y" - not just me: my wife and several friends feel the same way.

I don't waste time with my Apple Watch + AirPods: I just process calls/texts/emails and listen to pad casts or music.

I was kind of with him right up until this:

> But if you ask yourself who's the healthiest person you know, almost certainly they subscribe to some sort of named philosophy that helps them make consistent and value-driven decisions about what they eat and how they move. Maybe they're vegan or paleo.

Maybe I’m an outlier, but that tends to be more true of the least healthy people I know.

Named philosophies with strict rules give you far more opportunities to measure your failures. It’s too easy to slip, notice you’ve slipped, and figure, “well, I’ve done that much, I guess I’m just off the wagon today.” (Not to mention that vegan and paleo both leave room for some wildly unhealthful decisions without breaking the rules.)

It seems like his philosophy isn’t as strict as that, though. I like the approach in large part because it isn’t like going vegan or paleo. As with so many things, it’s all about finding moderation and an approach that you can stick to sustainably.

Healthiest person I ever knew was my gradma. She sure as hell wasn't vegan or paleo.

She was Catholic and she was practicing the virtue of temperance every day.

We often adopt lifestyles, we do certain things, in order to become healthier, fitter, smarter, richer...

She wasn't doing it because who she wanted become. She was doing it because of who she was.

> She wasn't doing it because who she wanted become. She was doing it because of who she was.

So she would have had no problem stopping such behavior without fear of repercussion? If not then the motivation is not solely self directed. Many people are engaged in virtuistic pursuits because of fear or selfishness. Their outward actions can't always be taken at face value.

Wouldn't that just mean her named philosophy was Catholicism?

That could be a result of selection bias as well though. People who are already healthy are probably less likely to reach for extreme diets than people who are unsatisfied with their health.

I was recently searching for a metal box that I could put my iPhone in when it's time for me to focus on family. After seeing a few vintage cigarette boxes pop up in the search results, I realized that sticking my phone into a box built for cigarettes would be a helpful reminder of how addictive my phone can be. I even considered getting a Camel-brand tin, but decided to get something classier/more subtle.

Yeah I searched Etsy and eBay. It was hard to find one that was big enough for my iPhone 7 Plus and my wife's SE (in a thick case). I eventually found a few brass and bronze candidates that were big enough and quite handsome.

Not a great analogy. A better one would be the automobile, IMO. Incredibly freeing and powerful, but pushed by actors for ethically dubious reasons and capable of massive negative societal effects if left unchecked.

Yes, but automobiles aren’t addicting.

I believe a better title would be about “today’s smart phone” assuming we will still have smart phones in the future but they won’t be designed to be addicting anymore.

People take the freedom of moving faster in a car, then get houses that are so much further away from everything that the time savings disappear and they are completely trapped using the car for everything. It's not addiction but it's close in a lot of ways.

Automobiles are not addictive in the medical sense, but consider that, all else being equal, heavy car users will, much faster than others, lose the capacity to walk long distances.

This, so much.

I take transit and cycle everywhere. Even with the bike and bus there's lots of walking to and from bus stops.

When I am out with colleagues and we want to go somewhere even a half a mile away people are all "that's soooo far..."

No wonder e-scooters are so popular. (And I suspect lots of their user base are smokers.)

I suspect (I'm a non-obese non-smoker) that far more obese non-smokers get winded by walking such a distance than non-obese smokers, at least until they're fairly old. Also, in walkable cities, I see quite a few smokers but much fewer obese people. If we're talking about hiking hills, it balances out a bit more, although I think the obese would still be at a disadvantage. Losing some of your lung capacity doesn't matter too much until you do intense exercise, but obese people always have to expend extra effort to carry their weight around.

After buying two of Cal Newport's book, with an honest attempt to read it fully, I decided to never ever buy another one of his "creations". His books can be compressed to 2 pages without ANY loss of information. So much so, that I am left wondering, is this the quality of the work that comes out of Deep Work and such.

I find my smartphone is incredibly hard to light and always goes out unless I draw on it really hard. Also, until I switched to a brand that used USB-C for its charger cable I seemed to put the wrong end in my mouth the first time every time.

Great read, thx.

> You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.

I don’t buy the analogy. Do we look back at TV saying the same thing? Granted we have to learn how we can live in balance with smartphones and the always-in mentality. Compared to cigarettes there are a lot of positives things you can do with smartphones.

It's the difference between one-way and two-way methods of communication as well as past events vs live events. TV shows are static, they are completely unchanged by your personal opinion as you watch it. You cannot submit a comment on a TV episode, nor is there any mechanism for the episode to reflect the impact of your comment (likes, replies, etc.)

In fact, even FB/Twitter/IG aren't "real-time". They don't show all the likes as they're coming in. They specifically delay showing the full number so you have a reason to come back and re-check. If you see a higher number of likes, you're going to come back again to re-check.

TV isn't the same, as it doesn't contain the same tight feedback loop of reward and punishment as social media.

TV isn’t the same? you mean like smartphones aren’t the same as cigarettes?

> Do we look back at TV saying the same thing?

They definitely do. Not to the same degree that people shun cigarette smoking as a vice though. There's a reason that the phrase 'binge-watching' includes the word binge, as opposed to saying 'marathoning' or something that would communicate the same thing.

Yeah. People have been saying it for a long time about tv. At least as long as I can remember.



People used to say the same thing about reading if you go back far enough.

Yeah...that was kind of the point...

The problem isn't smartphones. It's apps that appeal to addictive persona, be they social media or time consuming games. Use your smartphone as a tool and it serves a purpose without intruding on your life.

I'd buy that if all the research into making them addictive wasn't pursued. Just like cigarettes, a lot of people are being targeted by the addictive nature of these devices. Sure, there's some people who just won't smoke, no matter what. But if you look at statistically significant portions of the population, how they were directly targeted by marketing, and then saturated with a physically addictive chemical (constant dopamine rushes that impact the brain in the case of smart phones and apps), well....I'm pretty sure the argument holds up for a large part of the population. Saying "just don't do that' just doens't work.

I doubt we will launch a massive campaign against phones unless they kill literally hundreds of thousands like smoking has. It's more likely we will have to for vaping or marijuana use, if they turn out to cause cancer in the millions now using those daily.

Eating while driving is also a huge part of the distracted driving problem. Food also causes numerous other health problems; obesity, diabetes and so on.

If we all work really hard we can come up with dumb reasons to ban almost anything. Politicians make careers out of this sort of thing.

I always liked the idea of simply banning distracted driving. Why have the law play cat and mouse with new technologies.

Awhile back when no texting laws were just starting out I remember thinking it was so stupid because my state (Michigan) already had a no distracted driving law.

I don't see how it's any different than eating, smoking, reading, or whatever else people do in their car that makes it harder to drive.

Part of it is marketing. Part of it is a way to essentially double the fine by adding an additional offense.

unfortunately the law has to balance principle with practicality. it's hard to imagine a way of detecting a wide range of distracting behaviors without some sort of pervasive surveillance. would you be willing to accept a camera in your car than an LEO can tap into at any time?

That’s definitely true but why should it be any harder than detecting someone texting?

From a practical standpoint, how about if your car is weaving back and forth they Get checked out.

AFAIK, people are rarely caught simply for texting and driving. to actually catch someone in the act, a cop has to drive by at the right moment and see the driver texting. more often, sms records will be examined in a crash postmortem. if texts were sent right before the time of the crash, it's good evidence that the driver was illegally texting. I guess if the police really care, they can do the same thing after pulling you over for erratic driving.

eating food doesn't leave the same digital trail. if a person crashes or gets pulled over for driving erratically and there's half a sandwich in the passenger seat, there's no way to know whether they were eating while driving or whether they just ate half of it in a parking lot 30 minutes ago.

I think we'll look at headphones / earphones like cigarettes as well.

Can you expand on that?

- Common habit

- Probably more damaging to our ears than we expect

- Damage is cumulative and takes a while to show the effects

I think cars would be a better analogy.

Something very useful but with negative externalities we did not predict.

Maybe he's on to something. Ban on indoor use of smartphones?

If you look at city photos pre-iPhone people are walking with their heads up (no one is looking at their phone).

Not a judgement, just a stark contrast from ~10 years ago.

posts old timey photo of everyone on a train reading the newspaper

Well, between smartphones, desk jobs, lack of proper physical activity there is definitely more people with rounded shoulders and "smartphone necks". And to be honest I don't think anyone read the newspaper for 3+ hours a day [0]

It's especially damaging for kids (still growing + somewhat more malleable bones / joints).

[0] https://www.emarketer.com/content/mobile-time-spent-2018

Those Popsockets are held with two fingers like a cigarette.

I think the right comparison is instagram, not smartphones.

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