An interview with William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry


Photo: Anne Ghory-Goodman

William Powers is the author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

Avi Solomon

First of all, I understand why you're having all these interviews because I think you've really touched on a sensitive issue for a lot of people, of being connected all the time.

William Powers

I've realized that it is sensitive, Avi, but I think we're only at the beginning of people recognizing it. People like you are the cutting edge of something and I'm not sure what it is, but there's some kind of dawning realization happening out there. It's fascinating to see it kind of blossom and I think that it's really just the start of something actually quite wonderful because I think we're going to wind up being a lot smarter about these digital tools.


William Powers reads from Hamlet's Blackberry.

Avi

I think it's practically the most important issue because being addicted to the internet you realize you're missing out on your life not just with yourself but with your family.

William

And my thesis is that you're also missing out on the internet in a way because by being an addict you're not being the best digital person you could be. You don't bring as much to that world as you could if you're there all the time. I'm not surprised to hear that you're from India or atleast from a place that has a real strong spiritual tradition because it does seem to be that people who respond most strongly to my book are people who have some kind of background of thinking about their inner life.

What I've discovered in the book coming out is not everybody is really conscious of having a spiritual life, some people are and really care and think about it every day but not everybody has even addressed that question in their life, so it's fascinating to me. I take it for granted because I grew up that way, but not everybody did.

Avi

What's your spiritual background?

William

I'm not a religious person. I wouldn't consider myself a member of any church or anything like that now but I did grow up in a pretty religious family as a Roman Catholic. After public school through eight grade I went to a Catholic boys high school in Providence, Rhode Island. So I just was always surrounded growing up by people who were thinking about the inner life and relatively spiritual people. I think even though I myself moved away from that, you know there's a difference between religion and spirituality obviously, I remained that kind of person where I was sort of keeping track of my own inner self and where it was headed, was I as fulfilled inside as my life was on the outside.

That was really part of the motivation for the book because I realized that these digital tools are often advertised and marketed as tools of fulfillment and of taking us to a better place in our lives, and the more connected I got the more I felt like they were taking something away from me and my inner life and I wanted to fix that because it shouldn't be that way. I think that our technologies should actually enrich that part of us as much as they enrich our work life and all the external things we do. I have a little passage at the beginning of the book you may remember where I talk about the inner life and I talk about it in secular terms. I use a few writers from the past like William James and actually there's a neuroscientist from today's world who calls it "the movie in the brain", it's this thing that we're constantly living in that nobody else has access to - it's just us.

I just felt that these tools were affecting it in a very profound way - some good ways but also increasingly some bad ways and I wanted to address that.

Avi

It's a very tricky thing to describe something like the soul and you do a pretty good job of getting that across.

William

Thank you. I was very aware in writing that part of the book that when you write about technology, you're going to have a lot of readers who don't even necessarily believe that there is such a thing as the soul. People who are more empirical and focused on what you can actually see and prove. So I wanted to do it in a way that kept those people on board for the rest of my argument, so I knew I has to do it in a really broad sense and not alienate people by being too abstract. So I really tried to keep it tied to everyday experience but at the same time try and acknowledge that there is this other part of us that you can't put under a microscope but that is incredibly important to everything we do.

When people are reading the book they seem to really sit up and notice when they get to that part because they realize nobody that they had come across wrote about technology combined with the spiritual, particularly suggesting that there's something to think about the devices they're using everyday.

Avi

You do mean something particular by the word "depth".

William

In writing the book I really searched and struggled for quite a while to find a word or relatively short phrase that would capture what's at stake here and I finally realized that the word "depth" did it. While it's a very broad word because it doesn't refer to something specific, this weakness is also it's strength because when you think about it, every experience we have in every dimension of our life can go deeper, can be an experience that feels like it's going to a profound place, or not. So it's not just limited to work or to relationships or to the quality of a given experience you're having as an individual - it's all those things. Everything we do in life can feel like it's deeper or more superficial depending on how you manage it and what happens to occur while you're having that experience. So I sort of felt it was a perfect word because it's very malleable and you can talk about it in many different ways. I also decided to go with "depth" because it's an accessible concept.

Everybody knows in a very informal way what it's like to say "I went to see that movie, it was really deep". That really means something to people and they know that deep is generally speaking a good thing and that life should be full of depth because that means you're really living it fully. People seem to bring it up a lot at my talks and I'm glad I didn't have to invent a new concept. There are various phrases like "digital maximalism" that I created for the book and I didn't want too have too much stuff that felt like jargon. And I still think about it all the time - I really still examine at the end of the day have I had a day where I went deep with my experiences at work, in my connections with people and so forth. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. But when it feels like I had some depth in my day I count that a successful day.

Avi

Your metaphor of a glance across the room disconnects the time aspect from the depth aspect.

William

Yes, so it's not about how much time you spend on something. Once I saw that sentence about the glance across the room written on the screen in front of me I realized: that is really true. I've had some glances with other people that were full of meaning and texture. More meaning than a multi-hour conversation and therefore it's not necessarily about the time investment. There's something else happening that gets you to a deep place that's really about the extent to which you're present in that moment. Really there and giving everything you've got. And that can happen in a glance or all kinds of things we do. It can happen in a tweet, frankly, if you really bring everything you've got to what you're tweeting. But that's the trick, it's how do you do that, how do you bring as much of yourself to bear in as many of your actions, thoughts and experiences each day. And that's of course the challenge of life and I think it's something that digital tools can help us with, but to make that happen we have to be very more thoughtful about them than most of us have been so far.

Avi

You came across a TV commercial from Thailand that perfectly illustrates this point.

William

It seems to be a public service ad that was put on Thailand television by a big telecom company, interestingly. It shows people just doing everyday things: walking on the beach, hanging out with friends and family, doing all kinds of interpersonal situations. And it shows how when one person goes off to do a digital task the other people disappear from their lives and are not present with them anymore in the fullest sense, they literally disappear in the video. I think it's a very well done, moving and powerful ad and message particularly for a telecom company to send. In fact one person wrote to me that they were tearing up watching it because it reminded them of how much is at stake when we are with people and when we make a decision to be less with them than we might be because that's really what the ad is all about.

Avi

The Tibetan concept of the bardo and McLuhan's term "extra-environment" also resonate with your idea of having gaps between experiences.

William

Does bardo literally mean like "the gap between"?

Avi

Yes.

William

That's fascinating. Yes, you have to have these spaces between experiences in order to grasp the full value and meaning of the experience. It's also the concept of ecstasy which means "stepping out of yourself". Ecstasy in a sense means having the ultimate experience but it's also a greek word that literally means leaving yourself in order to have a full experience of yourself. So that's what these gaps are about really. And that very ordinary one that I talk about in the book about calling my mother from the car and then having this amazingly rich mental experience of my mother after I ended the phone call and put the phone back in the cupholder turns out to be really the moment that people ask me most about and I'm asked to read on the radio and so forth. Because it's about this value of the gap that people I think all know about intuitively. To be able to have a mundane phone call with my mother and have it turn into this memorable connection with her and have it all happen because of a digital tool really does throw into very high relief the potential of these tools to truly connect us in better ways. But again you have to keep the gaps in mind.

It's kind of a paradox: In order to get the most out of the connection it's crucial that you know how to disconnect and how to use the disconnected time.

Avi

Can paper be used as a kind of disconnection device?

William

We're seeing an aspect of print on paper that wasn't clear to us when we were less connected everyday or not connected at all electronically. When you couldn't reach out to somebody in China in a matter of seconds and hear back from them, the idea of sitting down with a printed book and just being right there focused on that one task wasn't possibly so unusual. But now that print on paper has become an exception to life in the digital world we realize - here are all these things that paper has being doing for us for all these centuries and we didn't even fully realize it, paper really is a tool of focus and paper does help us have what Nicolas Carr calls "long thoughts".

That was a really remarkable trick that paper pulled off for a long time and maybe we should think about either keeping paper around so we can continue to do that on a regular basis or rethinking and redesigning the digital tools so they do that a little better. The popularity of Moleskine and all paper notebooks seems to be growing and that's very telling.

There's something about electric communication that is a little bit unsettling to the consciousness or puts us in a state that's relatively unsettled. This has been the case for over 150 years now with the invention of the telegraph. We feel like we're speeding up and accelerating and that can be very exciting and useful in some ways but in the end it doesn't afford focus the way that non-electric modes of reading and experiencing information do. That's something we're still wrestling with. The digital age in a sense is just a new chapter in our emerging relationship with electronic communication.

Avi

And the more an ereader becomes tablet-like, the more it looses that paper quality.

William

An ereader is three dimensional but we don't access the information that's in an ereader in a way that's three dimensional because it's a screen displaying electronic information. But the way we use an old-fashioned book is completely three-dimensional. The pages of a paper book exist and move in time and space the way we do. We are embodied creatures and there's something about an embodied tool that's different from a two-dimensional tool and it's very powerful for us in ways that are almost hard to articulate. That question of embodiment is huge in a digital world.

Avi

How can one "get" your idea of having an Internet Sabbath?

William

If you're really a digital person and you have been spending your days connected and you haven't had time away from the screen for weeks or months or even years for some people, it's very hard to even grasp what it feels like to spend a couple of full days offline and how different it is. The way in which your perception and your thoughts and really your whole experience just go into a different gear. You can't do it by going offline for one day.

It isn't enough because you're still in the transition and for some people who're really addicted, you're still in the withdrawal. As I write in the book, it took my family really a couple of months to adjust to the shift that happened and to the way in which everything you do through the day feels and is different because you're experiencing it differently. When you talk to another person who's fully done it you can talk about it with that person but even then it's hard to describe. It's like talking about a piece of music and trying to capture what the music did to you. Offline time is like life having a different melody and it's very very profound but you have to do it to know the difference.