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Steve Kettmann

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Samantha Power Is Right

Posted: 06/14/11 03:22 PM ET

Samantha Power is one of the smartest people in Washington. She was a key influence on Barack Obama during the period when he was still in the Senate putting the final touches on his foreign policy thinking in preparation to run for President.

Power also wrote "A Problem From Hell," a widely admired book. As I wrote in a review in the San Francisco Chronicle nine years ago, "Power's point is to encourage imaginative, hard-working approaches that shift the terms of the debate over genocide and humanitarian intervention rather than just sitting back and hoping that politicians not known for moral courage will suddenly display that quality."

I am not a fan of every aspect of Power's thinking and of course wish she had not ripped Hillary Clinton during the campaign in an interview with a reporter. But that is old news.

Power issued a challenge at a graduation speech at Occidental College in May not only to this year's crop of graduates, but to everyone: Use technology, but do not let it use you.

Here is how Power put it:

You've got to be all in. This means leaving your technology behind occasionally and listening to a friend without half of your brain being preoccupied by its inner longing for the red light on the BlackBerry. In many college classes, laptops depict split screens -- notes from a class, and then a range of parallel stimulants: NBA playoff statistics on ESPN.com, a flight home on Expedia, a new flirtation on Facebook. I know how good you all are at multitasking. And I know of what I speak, because I, too, am a culprit. You have never seen a U.S. government official and new mother so dexterous in her ability to simultaneously use a BlackBerry and breastfeed.

"But I promise you that over time this doesn't cut it. Something or someone loses out. No more than a surgeon can operate while tweeting can you reach your potential with one ear in, one ear out. You actually have to reacquaint yourself with concentration. We all do. We should all become, as Henry James prescribed, a person 'on whom nothing is lost.'"

This warning from Samantha Power is important and timely - I don't care if it sounds familiar or already told, the point is: It can't be emphasized enough.

Please, forward this post to people you know: Help them to avoid sliding all the way down the slippery slope toward eternal bifurcation of the mind. It's a constant battle. We all know people who push it too far -- I'm sure you do, too. Here's a good way to let them know they need to watch it.

At home in Berlin I do not even have a cell phone, let alone an iPhone or other similar device: I have time to think. I can sit and talk with a friend for half an hour, an hour - even two hours - without saying "Uh-huh, uh-huh" and sneaking furtive glances at my screen. I can listen.

I am not knocking technology. People love their iPhones. My eighty-year-old mother considers hers the greatest toy she's had in her entire life. But please, can't we all heed the wise Samantha Power's words and unplug now and then, the more the better? With all that extra time you could have the opportunity to pursue crazy anachronistic activities like reading books, writing letters and having actual conversations.

The reason why this matters is simple: If we are not getting smarter, we are getting dumber - and in today's world, the costs of getting dumber are higher. I for one hope to try to keep in mind Power's advice to look for ways to push ourselves forward - not just recent college grads, but all of us.

"Learn to write better, sing better, do math better, speak Spanish better, sketch better, organize your life better," said Power.

Don't know about the sketching part, but I like the way she's thinking: Maybe it's time to learn Arabic.