Cal Newport (Houston, 39 years old) says that, until not long ago, he was seen as an eccentric and somewhat aggressive being for not having social networks. He feels that time has proved him right, especially since Donald Trump arrived at the White House and more and more people began to distrust the platforms. He regrets that most people haven’t taken the step to delete his profiles, but at least they no longer harass him for not being part of that world. The same year that Trump was elected president, this American published deep work (“work in depth”, in Spanish), a book that has just been translated into our language with the title focus (Peninsula). In it, in addition to analyzing why it is necessary to work in depth and with the greatest possible concentration, he provides a series of tips to achieve it. And yes, one of his recommendations is to leave social networks. But in this ode to productivity he also explains why avoid checking email every few minutessurfing the net in moments of distraction and the need to create a work system for daily tasks.
As a professor of computer science at Georgetown University (Washington), Newport does not deny technology, but he is extremely skeptical of the design that has been given to it in many cases and the use we make of it, mainly in the job. For him, working in depth is synonymous with success and full employment, and he assures that having this competence, together with a great ability to concentrate to produce quality work, will be increasingly necessary in the labor market; although, ironically, it is becoming more and more difficult for us to reach that concentration, as he explains. From his residence in Washington he attends EL PAÍS by video call to talk about the work in depth and how he writes about social networks without having social networks.
Ask. Public focus (deep work) six years ago. What would you write today?
Answer. To write a kind of sequel to that book, as it is A world without email (“a world without email”, not yet translated into Spanish), I continued to wonder why we work in this distracting way, and checked the history of the email. The conclusion I reached is that it was an accident: the e-mail it came into the office to replace the fax, but once we had it there, its mere presence changed the way we work and opened the door for endless back-and-forth conversations and messages. That spiral spiraled out of control and created this world of distractions where it’s so hard to get things done.
P. The covid-19 pandemic has had us in front of screens longer than ever. How do you think it has affected work?
R. When the pandemic started I thought that the change to teleworking was going to make many things worse. I think it was a real problem because even though the workers didn’t have to relocate, they put in more hours than ever. Of course, I also believed that companies were going to have to rethink how they work, but, although the pandemic made work painful, it also brought a lot of pain in other ways, so people were already desensitized to it, so there was no changes in the way we organize ourselves.
P. How are your habits regarding the use of mobile phones and computers?
R. I view care as an athlete would view their health and fitness. I live by reflecting and expressing my thoughts in books and articles, so I don’t have social networks, which would be very counterproductive for my work. It would be like an athlete smoking. Since I live by reflecting all day, I don’t want to expose myself to something that is designed so that I press a series of buttons that, for example, will make me depressed. I set standards so you don’t have to constantly check email. For example, I have a shared document with my publicist where we review ideas only once a day.
P. And how do you manage the use of devices with your children?
R. The first one is nine years old, so they are not very old yet. There are two main concerns when thinking about technology and children: smartphones and social networks and video games, especially those that are online. We know that social networks can generate psychological discomfort. Their brain can’t handle everything they cause them, so I’m a big advocate that they don’t have a smartphone with access to them, but one that they can only message. And you have to be careful with video games on-line because they are designed to be incredibly addictive. In fact, it is the most addictive technology along with slot machines. A child can turn into a monster if you try to take the game away from him. Neither social networks nor online video games enter my house.
“You have to be careful with online video games because they are designed to be incredibly addictive. It is the most addictive technology along with slots”
P. When do you plan for them to have their own cell phone?
R. I think no one should have one before the age of 16. In fact, at 18 it would make more sense. A lot of teenagers get mad at me when I say it publicly. Parents should introduce alternatives in their lives. They need to feel that they are connected to other people and a feeling of belonging to a group that replaces what video games or excessive use of networks give them. It depends on the child, but that could be a sport, theater, writing… Much of the communication between adolescents has moved from social networks to messaging applications, so the social impact of not being on those social networks is not so big; I think now it is easier to eliminate them from their lives.
P. Have they tried to convince you to open accounts on social networks? Your publishers, for example.
R. They used to try, but they’ve given up now (laughs). The funny thing is, for a long time, I was considered weird. Some people interpreted it as an aggressive rejection of modernity. For example, In 2016 I wrote an opinion piece for New York Times in which he defended that young people gave too much importance to social networks thinking about their future work and did not believe that it was as relevant as it is to develop skills. The newspaper commissioned a response article to repudiate what I said, from so much commotion that arose. It seemed that he had said that democracy was overrated and we should bring back a king. When I gave a TED talk about it, the organizers were worried, they changed the title and I had to ask them to put back: ”Get off social media”. All of that has changed since Trump was elected president; people became more wary of networks. The culture changes very quickly in the United States Now people say, “Good for you.”
P. Some consider social networks to be an extension of society, as real-life discussions are carried over to them. Would you say that this is true or that, deep down, they are irrelevant?
R. Neither of them. I think that the conversations on the networks do not offer a representative sample of how society feels. What we have are extreme, tribal, and bizarre positions coming down hard, and angry communities fighting back with incredible vehemence. They do not represent how ordinary people feel, although they wield enormous influence in politics and the media. It is like a distorted mirror: the world that is reflected in the networks is not an accurate representation of the real world, but the people in power pretend that it is.
“The world that is reflected in the networks is not an accurate representation of the real world, but the people in power pretend that it is”
P. It seems that in recent years we have been spending less time on some platforms, as if we had grown tired. How do you think the use of the networks we use now will evolve?
R. My prediction is that there will be an end to the fact that there are few, but huge platforms that everyone uses. I think we are going to have a more fragmented market. Some will prefer one and others will prefer another, but they will not ask you how it is possible that you do not have TikTok, for example. Now there is so much competition that they have no way to maintain that prominent position.
P. As a computer engineer, how do you feel about the work done in Silicon Valley? Do you ever consider how you could have contributed, at least when it comes to ethics?
R. It would have been interesting if he had worked for one of those companies. In college I had a job offer to go to Microsoft and another to go to MIT (Massachusett Institute of Technology), and I went the academic route, which offered me more flexibility, but not as much money. I wouldn’t have been happy with a stressful, email-saturated work life; I would have felt miserable in a way. I am interested to see how Silicon Valley will evolve, although I think it will adapt and do well, just as it is no longer limited to that geographical space, but has expanded and allowed workers to telecommute forever .
P. How do you think the metaverse and virtual reality are going to influence the way of working and the difficulties to do it in depth?
R. The impact of these technologies will be work-neutral. We are going to continue in a world of screens or virtual. What is going to make it easier for us to do in-depth work and concentrate more is going to be something of a philosophical nature, it is not going to be solved by technology. We do not have a technological problem that prevents us from doing the work, but a management problem. We need to rethink how we work. The metaverse and the technological revolution are not going to make the job better or worse. We don’t need new tools, we need to reassess the issue.