Is that incredible screen and keyboard often in your hand the greatest personal and professional tool ever, or is it the devil's device, insidiously sucking the time out of your life and the life out of your soul?
Today, I get to talk to William Powers, the author of a new book that raises exactly this question, but without the diabolical overtones. Its title is Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Bill is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, whose worked has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other publications. This book arose out of research he did while basking in the glory of a prestigious fellowship at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.
Tom: Bill, I love your book. It's chock full of great life philosophy that we need now. It's in a sense about a troubling paradox we're almost all experiencing in some form. I can imagine some tech genius sitting around years ago thinking, "Wouldn't it be GREAT if we were all connected to everything and everyone else ALL THE TIME?" And here we have our first approximation, the exciting new 3G/4G/Who-knows-how-many-G network, and it's taking over our lives!
Bill: Thanks, Tom. I'm really glad you enjoyed Hamlet's BlackBerry. The book is about trying to solve what I call the Conundrum of Connectedness. In the last few decades, these fantastic digital devices have come along that have the potential to do so much to enrich our lives. And they are enriching our lives in many ways. But as we're all learning, digital technology also imposes new burdens. The more connected we are, the more our lives grow crowded with people and information. We're just a lot busier tending to our outward lives, and as a result it's become harder to find those quiet spaces and times that allow us to go inward and nurture our inner selves. And as you know so well, ignoring the inner self is foolish, because that's where a good, happy life begins. I think we need to strike a better balance between the outward life and the inward one, and the best way to do that is through philosophy.
Tom: That's a great point. Many people don't know that the word 'philosophy' in its roots means simply, "the love of wisdom." Philosophy is just about cultivating wisdom, or insight for living. That's what you're doing in your book, helping us to restore our inner lives with a philosophy, or GPS for the soul that will guide us toward greater happiness. Philosophy isn't just some esoteric academic pursuit, but at its best, an exercise in getting our bearings, one that we all need to engage in now and then.
I noticed something this weekend that's actually a normal scene these days, but that shows our need for a better approach to our technologies and lives. On a beautiful day, I saw a big group of teenagers sitting around a table near a pool in a strikingly attractive setting, the girls in bikinis, the guys shirtless in their trunks, and they were all looking down at screens, except for one, a girl who was staring into space as she talked, on her cell phone.
Bill: That's a thumbnail portrait of life in the early 21st century. I was going to say it's a tableau vivant, except it's not very vivant, is it?
It's perfectly natural that people everywhere are excited about their digital lives. Young people in particular are natural connectors. They're learning about the world, feeling those first thrilling urges of sexual awareness and attraction. The question is whether staring into screens all day is the best way to experience the world and the miracle of other people. In our enthusiasm about the latest technologies, we've been running away from the richest connectedness of all - the face-to-face kind. It's time for a course correction.
Tom: Here's a great quote from your book: "The moments we enjoy most as they unfold, and that we treasure long afterward, are the ones we experience most deeply." Those kids were not experiencing their time together deeply. They were hardly noticing each other at all, or the beauty of nature around them. They were darting through Digital-World instead and thumbing out messages to the great beyond.
Bill: Screen life tends to be very rushed and superficial. We click from Facebook to Twitter to the inbox and so forth, seldom pausing to reflect and savor. Sometimes you have to live that way - our jobs often require us to rush helter-skelter from task to task. What's weird is that we're increasingly living this way all the time, even when we don't have to. We've unthinkingly adopted an approach which says the more connected you are by screens, the better - I call it Digital Maximalism - as if it's the path to happiness. But it really isn't. It doesn't serve our best interests on any level. What I'm doing in the book is raising consciousness about this problem and offering a new philosophical approach.
Tom: I also love another statement of yours from the book shortly following the one I just quoted: "There are ordinary people who, through sheer joyful engagement, seem to find depth in everything they do." There's a sense in which your whole book is helping guide us back to that sort of joyful engagement with our lives.
Bill: Exactly! Isn't that what it's all about? I look around and see so many people crouched over their screens grimly punching out texts and emails. They look miserable. When taken to this extreme, the new connectedness is the opposite of joyful engagement. Instead of using these gadgets to enrich our lives, we're becoming digital drones and drudges. Why?
Tom: You're so right to ask "Why?" And for most people, there's no reason. One of your favorite philosophers from ancient Rome, and mine, the stoic Seneca, once wrote, "It's disgraceful when, instead of steering your way forward, you find yourself carried along and suddenly, in a whirlpool of events, get so confused, you ask: 'How did I get into this condition?'" Most people enslaved to digital demands had no idea they'd be so in-over-their-heads now. But they are.
In the book, you look at some great advice that wise people have passed on to us about how to deal very well with any new technology, and with the constant interruptions in our lives. You offer us insight from Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and others.
Bill: It turns out this challenge is not so new. Since the dawn of human society, people have been striving to connect, and using technology to do it. And life has been growing busier and more crowded. The good news is that great thinkers have been working on the problem all along, and their insights are strikingly relevant to our time. In reading Hamlet's BlackBerry, many people are stunned to discover that the ancient Romans were dealing with their own version of information overload, as were Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There are countless parallels from history, and I explore some of the more interesting ones.
Tom: In these accounts of past thinkers, you offer some fresh and original perspectives. I have to admit that you showed me an insight from Plato's great dialogue Phaedrus that I had completely missed over the years. I've always read it in terms of what it has to say about love and desire, and missed the significance of the setting for the dialogue.
Bill: One of the beauties of Plato is that he was writing on so many different levels. So every time you go back to him, there's something new to discover. I'd also read Phaedrus many times over the years without noticing how much emphasis he gives to the setting. Socrates and Phaedrus have this dialogue while taking a walk in the countryside, away from the busy streets of Athens. And suddenly it struck me that Plato was trying to tell us something about distance, and the need to put some space between ourselves and our hectic lives. That's one of my core themes in the book, the need to open up those gaps in which we can reflect and take our thoughts to new places. The ancients craved moments of disconnectedness, just as we do.
Tom: Speaking of distance, I also loved your chapter on Thoreau and some of the details of his famous experiment, like how close his little place on Walden Pond was to town, but just far enough to give him breathing room. I also really resonated with the famous remark of Thoreau's, quoted on page 180: "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
Bill: Walden has many quotable lines but that one really leaps out. You read it and think, "Yes, that's what I should be doing every day! Why aren't I?" If you read Thoreau closely, it's clear that what he was doing was not running away from civilization, as we're often led to believe. His cabin at Walden Pond was a short walk from town, and he was back and forth all the time. The point of his experiment was to set up a zone away from the hubbub, a place apart where he could go inward and "live deep." I argue we could all do the same thing in our homes today. Do we really need to be connected 24/7 to the digital crowd? I write about my family's ritual of going offline every weekend - we call it the Internet Sabbath. It turns our home into a kind of private Walden two days a week. We've been at it for over three years now and, as I recount in the book, it's restored that needed balance to our lives.
Tom: Our philosophical predecessor Seneca had apparently heard lots of people complain in his own time about how short life is. He wrote: "Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is invested well." When we don't think of our time as a field for investment, we easily get caught up in things that rob us of it. When we use a little wisdom, like Thoreau, and your family, we can regain some control over our lives and reap great benefits.
Bill: Seneca is wonderful on the importance of taking back your own life. Why are you allowing all these other people and the petty demands of everyday life to define you and your experience? Life can feel long and generous, if you go about it wisely.
Tom: Bill, I've enjoyed your book immensely, and I've had great fun talking with you about it. It's nicely ironic that we're having our conversation by email, staring at our screens. But then I do look up and out the window now and then to visually suck a bit of the marrow out of the day as well.
Bill: It can be as simple as that, Tom. Just look out the window, really look. We're alive right now on this fabulous planet spinning through a universe whose mysteries we've barely begun to understand. How can we not be astonished and filled with joy?
Thank you for your kind words about the book and this great chat.
Tom: My pleasure, Bill. I'm going to go immerse myself in the day at a whole new level now that we've had this talk. But after I check my email once more, of course.
Bill: Of course!
Note: For more on the book, go to www.williampowers.com.