Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a prominent writer on technology's impact, spoke at Duke’s Penn Pavilion on Thursday, Oct. 5 as part of Sanford’s Crown Lecture in Ethics Series. With his signature mixture of pragmatic analysis and academic expertise, Newport delved into the concept of "techno-distraction" and its broader implications on society. His insights shed light on the unintended consequences of technology use and the need for a more nuanced understanding of its effects.
The problem with e-mail
Newport's data highlighted the staggering frequency with which people check their email inboxes and smartphones. This constant digital interruption, according to Newport, has adverse effects on well-being. He cited research linking email use to increased anxiety and decreased overall well-being, particularly due to cognitive overload.
"This is a big deal. This is something that's taking up a lot of our time. This is something that is having a notable impact on our day-to-day experience,” Newport said. “This is an example of technology that is drastically changing our day-to-day experience. Ten years ago, we did not look down at our hand 150 to 200 times per day. Today we do. Twenty five years ago we did not stop what we were doing and check an email inbox once every six minutes, but today we do. So these are important case studies of major technological change.”
Newport delved into the factors contributing to email-related anxiety, such as cognitive context switching, social pressures, and ineffective communication through email. He argued that these issues can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.
“We have a lot of data that's coming out of organizational psychology where they actually can study the connection between email use and subjective well-being. Use email more and anxiety goes up while well-being goes down.”
As Newport humorously explained, email taps into a primal instinct of humanity.
“Even if we have corporate norms and our frontal cortex can tell us, it's okay. They're not expecting a response right away. There are deeper parts of our brains that say this is a problem. You can’t ignore the tribe. They won’t share food for the next famine and you have death and your genes aren't going to pass on… My God! We’ve GOT to check the email inbox.”
Turning his attention to smartphone usage, Newport emphasized its impact on young people, citing studies that correlated the rise in smartphone adoption with increased anxiety and depression among college students.
“What do we see if we look at this right around 2012, this is the first year where we really saw college students bringing smartphones to campus at a large rate. Anxiety and anxiety-related depression goes up.”
He explored various mechanisms through which excessive smartphone use can harm mental health, including decreased in-person social interactions and reduced self-reflection time.
“I found this when I worked with 1600 people for Digital Minimalism [Newport’s 2019 bestselling book]. I found that for most people, their issue was not what they were doing on the phone. In fact, it was quite boring. The issue was what they were missing by being on their phone that was causing this trouble.”
Newport continued on the importance of life outside of smartphones.
“We lose self-reflection in this as well. Being alone with our own thoughts is critical for human development and human flourishing, especially if you're young. Thoughts are how you process information you've encountered in the world, time alone with your own thoughts is how you develop your identity as a person.”
looking at history
The lecture then shifted to the history of email and its transformation of workplace communication. Newport recounted a story from IBM in the 1980s, where the introduction of email led to a surge in communication volume without explicit coordination. This shift was particularly pronounced in the realm of knowledge work due to its inherent autonomy.
Newport also delved into the introduction of the smartphone. He said the smart phone's initial creators, such as Steve Jobs, had not envisioned the constant use that would become prevalent. He traced the evolution of smartphone use to the "like" button on social media platforms, which inadvertently fueled addictive behavior by providing intermittent social approval indicators.
Again, Newport connected our innate human instincts to the addictive nature of this new disruptive technology, exploring the psychological effects of “like” buttons.
“People turn out to really care a lot about social approval indicators and information about what other people think about us. Is incredibly powerful. For most people in this room, if I put two envelopes in front of you: $100 dollars in one and something I just heard someone say about you [in the other envelope], at least half the people in the room are taking the gossip envelope, right?”
Newport also pointed to the dominance of current tech monopolies (specifically mentioning Meta, Twitter and TikTok) and the ways in which this dominance has fundamentally changed the internet and damaged our ability to communicate.
“The particular, social media-driven communication, this idea that we want everyone to be on the same small number of homogenized platforms, driven by incredibly heavy curation, makes it seem like the world is constantly on fire and everyone is the enemy that also makes us anxious.”
This idea that we want everyone to be on the same small number of homogenized platforms, driven by incredibly heavy curation, makes it seem like the world is constantly on fire and everyone is the enemy that also makes us anxious.
There is Hope
Despite the dangers of our current technological distractions, Newport finished the lecture with hopeful solutions. Calling for a more open approach to communicating on the internet, or even walking away from social media.
“No one from TikTok is going to show up at your door if you stop using it, right? No one from Instagram is going to get mad and say why aren't you using Instagram anymore? So you actually have a huge amount of agency. You could walk away right now, and nothing's going to happen. I would add that the right thing to do is to start really aggressively investing in other parts of your life, like getting involved in causes and starting new things, joining groups, and building up new skills. Build up these things that you really love to do. Then it's not that hard to walk away because you have something else to do now.”
A Day with Distinguished Speaker Cal Newport
1 of 5
1 of 5
1 of 5
1 of 5
1 of 5
About the Crown Lecture Series
Endowed by Lester Crown, this prestigious lecture series brings speakers to campus to discuss the ethical implications of issues in the arts, sciences, medicine, business and other fields. It was conceived to be the centerpiece of Sanford School’s efforts to guide students, faculty, and public opinion on the critical importance of ethical decision-making in the professions and public life. Crown is an enterprising businessman, active civic leader, and chairman emeritus of Henry Crown and Company. Event partners for this lecture include the Sanford School of Public Policy and Technology Policy Program.