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Author Disconnects From Communication Devices to Reconnect With Life

August 16, 2010 at 9:11 PM EDT
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In this day and age, much communication is done by e-mail, text messages, Twitter and other forms of digital communication. William Powers, author of "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age," explains how disconnecting from our screens may help us reconnect with our lives.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a story for everyone who feels overwhelmed by information.

Six years ago, Bill Powers and his family disconnected from life in fast-paced Washington, D.C., and moved to the small town of Orleans on Cape Cod.

WILLIAM POWERS, author, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”: Ready?

JEFFREY BROWN: And, these days, if he wants to go canoeing with son William, well, the water is just at the end of the street. Idyllic, for sure, and yet Powers realized he and his loved ones were still plenty connected, way too connected to the roar of the digital crowd, through their screens.

WILLIAM POWERS: I was wrestling with this conundrum that I think we’re all in today, which is the wonder of digital technology and the burden, and sort of, where does one begin and the other end, and how do you strike a balance between the two?

I was feeling, in my work, in my family life, and just really kind of inside my own head a crowdedness, a sort of never — never quiet time.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you — how do you know that? How do you — how does it show itself?

WILLIAM POWERS: It was this sense of never having a break from stimulation, from information, from distraction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps you know the feeling? Powers calls it digital maximalism, that sense of being always on through our smartphones, e-mails, tweets, Facebook, Gchats, alerts, links, tags, posts, photos, videos, blogs, vlogs, searches, and updates.

WILLIAM POWERS: When you brought it up, everyone would say, yes, I have that same feeling. What is it? You know, why can I not do one thing for a sustained period anymore? Why is it hard for me to stay with a novel? I used to love to read novels.

JEFFREY BROWN: Powers had his aha moment one day when he accidentally dumped his mobile phone overboard.

WILLIAM POWERS: I was in this space by myself. And I realized it was a space I hadn’t been in, in a very long time and that it had great value to me. I was glad to be there again. And I wanted to figure out how to get that back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Powers’ response: a look at our present continuum drum titled “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.”

Now, Powers is no angry prophet spewing venom at modern life and its toys. He uses and loves them himself. He’s as multi as the next tasker, as a former reporter and longtime media columnist. And he knows very well that technology helps make his current lifestyle possible. Powers can write his articles from afar, and so can his wife, Martha Sherrill, who is working on her fifth book in another corner of their 150-year-old Cape house. They, along with 12-year-old William, who, like kids everywhere, loves his screens, can be as connected as they want or need to be. And, yet, says Powers, all that connection to the outside meant something lost inside the home.

WILLIAM POWERS: What we saw in our family life was something was being leached out of our togetherness and our communication by turning away from each other toward the screen and even just communicating with each other on the screen. We were e-mailing across the house, you know, when we could walk a few steps and have a conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Powers decided to look to past thinkers and doers and their encounters with new technology. He calls them the seven philosophers of screens, Plato channeling Socrates, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan, each, according to Powers, offering a particular lesson for our own time.

Take Seneca, a philosopher and statesman, a thinker who had a small side job of helping to run the Roman Empire and its bureaucracy.

WILLIAM POWERS: They were inundated with documents, with — with mail. People were constantly checking if the mail had arrived, the mail boat from Egypt, and so forth.

He realized he was running in so many directions, he had to learn to focus better and discipline himself and find a place apart for the mind. And, so, there’s a wonderful passage in one of his letters where he talks about how, even in a noisy room in the middle of hectic Rome, he could figure out a way to make his mind a quiet place, where he could focus on one task.

JEFFREY BROWN: A multitasker.

WILLIAM POWERS: He was really a multitasker. And his friends were. He talks about his friends suffering from the restless energy of the hunted mind, and that it went with them everywhere they traveled, even on vacation.

JEFFREY BROWN: That will sound a little familiar.

WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly. It’s like when we go to the hotel and we say — on vacation — and say, do you have Wi-Fi?

JEFFREY BROWN: And that BlackBerry of Hamlet’s? That’s Powers having fun with then popular new gizmos in Elizabethan England called tables, handheld devices on which one could take notes with stylus and erase clean for a fresh start to clear the mind. Shakespeare naturally played with the latest technology.

WILLIAM POWERS: In one of the earliest scenes of “Hamlet,” he meets the ghost. And the ghost, of course, has this terrible news for Hamlet. And he’s kind of thrown off and doesn’t know what to do with it quite. He pulls out his tables. He says, “My tables, my tables.”

He takes out the stylus and takes some notes. And it kind of gives him this wonderful feeling of being in control of the situation. Now, this is a case of a relatively new technology helping someone, in a sense, gain order. And I — one of the reasons I use it is to point out that there are ways in which we might — our technologies might evolve to help us more, rather than making us busier.

JEFFREY BROWN: How?

WILLIAM POWERS: In the book, I come up with some very crude suggestions, like, could we sit down at our screen and have it ask us, how busy do you want to be? Do you want to focus on one thing?

JEFFREY BROWN: Have the screen ask us, how busy do you want to be today?

WILLIAM POWERS: Yes, exactly. Yes. Do you want to focus on one thing? Rather than allowing me to open up 25 different Web pages.

JEFFREY BROWN: An immediate step comes from the example of Thoreau, he of the famous cabin at Walden Pond, which gave him a place away, though not that far away, from the crowd.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thoreau said that — noted that people in his time had become addicted to going to the post office to check their mail. He said that, in proportion, as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office…

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM POWERS: … which is such a wonderful diagnosis of really what a lot of us are suffering from today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Powers thinks all of us could create our own Walden spaces, even if it’s just a room in our homes, where technology is off-limits.

WILLIAM POWERS: Do what Thoreau did, which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world, not — don’t run away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Four years ago, he and his family instituted what might be called Walden time, a weekly Internet Sabbath, unplugging the modem late Friday through Monday morning. All right. Show us.

WILLIAM POWERS: OK, you ready? Here we go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Three, two…

WILLIAM POWERS: Two, one. Internet goes off, and the Sabbath begins. That’s all there is to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: As it happens, at the time of our visit, the Pew Research Center had just issued a report citing tech experts who believe the Internet is and will continue to be a benefit to our social relationships. But Powers says he’s also finding something else as he travels the country and talks about selective disconnecting.

WILLIAM POWERS: One of the first talks I gave about the book was in Los Angeles to a fairly large audience, people of many different ages. And after the speech, the people who came up to me and really buttonholed me most urgently were — tended to be younger people. And a few of them really had tears in their eyes and said, you know, I have never — I didn’t even know this was an option.

JEFFREY BROWN: As Powers says and his philosophers of screen show, a little reflection and a few concrete actions can bring some balance back to modern wired life.