On a brisk night in November, a few dozen people huddled into a basement bookstore in Washington DC to hear Cal Newport opine on the state of technology, work and society at large. Newport, a 40-year-old MIT-trained computer scientist, spends much of his time researching distributed algorithm theory and teaching undergrads maths and theory as an associate professor at Georgetown. But he has also carved out a side career as a productivity evangelist for the masses, with teachings centred around the values of focused work, work-life balance and cutting out digital distractions.
Newport, who has the affably square looks and slicked side parting of a Mormon missionary, doesn’t do much public speaking. For one, he doesn’t like to travel too far from his wife and three young children. For another, he does not enjoy it. “I don’t mind actually getting on the stage,” he told me. “But I just don’t like — I’m just too introverted.” On this occasion, he agreed to appear at East City Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Capitol Hill, in conversation with David Sax, a Canadian journalist who had a new book out titled The Future is Analog.