By William Powers
Why the only screen you should take to the beach is sunscreen
Ah, those lazy days of summer. Snoozing in a hammock. Reading a good book under a beach umbrella. It’s the season for disconnecting from everything that makes life frantic and arduous – the office, the traffic, the endless rushing around.
Goodbye to all that, right?
Not any more. In recent years, something crucial has changed about summer and what it means to get away from it all. It’s a seemingly small thing that most of us take with us everywhere we go, including on vacation: the mobile phone or tablet that you probably have in close reach – maybe even displaying these words – right now.
On one level, it makes perfect sense that we never go anywhere without our gadgets. They perform all kinds of useful tasks for us and enrich our lives in countless ways.
But they also keep us connected to everything we’re trying to escape. Having a screen along for the ride changes the nature of the ride. A quiet afternoon of fishing isn’t the same when your inbox is buzzing every five minutes. Getting lost in a wonderful book is impossible if you’re simultaneously fielding tweets and Facebook updates.
By staying connected all the time, we ensure that we never truly go “away.” And the resulting losses are massive. Our souls crave the release summer once offered. We need to cut loose now and then, sit quietly, take naps, dance in the moonlight. Those moments are exceedingly rare now, yet this is barely discussed, like a dirty secret nobody wants to mention.
The death of summer is a symptom of a much larger shift. In the last 15 years, we have unwittingly adopted a very particular philosophy for life in the age of screens: the more connected you are, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, and I think it’s a foolish way to live.
When you’re always staring at your iPhone you give up something that’s enormously important in every facet of life: depth. Depth of thought, depth of feeling, depth of experience.
Without depth, everything we do suffers, from how we think and learn to how we relate to others and do our work. Office workers now spend their days shuttling crazily from e-mails to texts to tweets to voice mails to social networks. This endless cycle of distractions is making businesses, governments and other organizations less, rather than more, efficient – defeating the very purpose the technologies were created for in the first place. According to one study, information overload in the workplace is costing American businesses nearly $1 trillion a year.
But far more important than our performance at work – and undergirding it – is the effect our screen addiction is having on our inner lives. When you never stop to think about an idea for more than two minutes, when you can’t focus on a single conversation, when it’s impossible to spend a quiet half-hour with your child without checking your mobile, you really have no inner life at all. You’re living a completely external life, one that’s dependent on and reactive to the world’s demands.
This seems like a brand new challenge, but in fact it isn’t. All through history, whenever a powerful new connective technology came along, human beings have experienced information overload similar in many ways to what we’re facing now.
Around the year 60 A.D., for instance, the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca lamented the insane busyness of everyday life. In the previous few centuries, written, alphabet-based language had dramatically increased the amount of information literate people had to navigate. Seneca writes about how hard it was to keep up, how friends and colleagues rushed around all day toggling their attention from one small thing to the next, waiting urgently for the next mail delivery.
They suffered from what he calls “the restless energy of the hunted mind” and, he writes, even took it with them on vacation: “The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.”
This is no way to live, and Seneca had some simple techniques for settling his mind and disconnecting. The first step is simply recognizing that you need to get away from the crowd, to refresh your mind and spirit. Throughout history, many other great thinkers have reached the same conclusion: to be productive and happy, we need quiet time, respites, getaways.
It seems harder than ever today, but in one sense it’s actually gotten easier.
Just turn off your mobile. Leave it in a drawer for a week. The first few days will be hard, but then something miraculous happens. You’ll wake up one morning and find yourself breathing easier. Your thoughts will slow down. You’ll actually stay with that great novel for two hours and doze off with a smile on your face. And when your vacation is over, you’ll return to your connected life recharged, full of new energy and enthusiasm.
Life has changed a lot in the last few decades, but the basic ingredients of human happiness are exactly the same as two thousand years ago.
It’s summertime. Take the plunge. Disconnect.
William Powers is the author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” just published by HarperCollins. For more information about the book, visit www.williampowers.com.