William Powers is a journalist and social philosopher. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He is a two-time winner of the Arthur Rowse Award for best American media commentary. His first book is "Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age" (HarperCollins, 2010), which challenges the widely held assumption that the more we connect through technology.
Question: What does technology do for inwardness?
William Powers: The interesting thing to think about when you think about technology is what is your goal when you use a connective device? You're reaching outward. You're going beyond yourself and you're limited world that you live in to connect to other people, to connect to information you otherwise wouldn't be able to reach and that's a wonderful thing, obviously. It's almost miraculous the amount of information and the number of people that we have our fingertips today.
But the question is what's your goal in reaching outward like that and immersing yourself in the outward world. I think most of us are seeking to enrich ultimately our inward world, to make ourselves happier, to be more fulfilled in life, to really reach those goals that we're all trying to reach in our lives whatever they happen to be and they're different for every person. So the balance that people really have always learned to strike through history with new connective devices is to figure out how you use a new technology to go out into that outward world and bring it back home, so that you can use it in a reflective way, so that you can take it to that place that I referred to in my book as depth.
You know, you really want to have in everything you do, in your work, in your relationships, you want it to be experiences that have real depth so that they are adding to your life rather than subtracting to it. And my belief in the book and I work very hard to establish this through historical examples as well as contemporary ones, is that if you spend all your time in the outward world, all your time extending your consciousness and your senses into that realm beyond the here and now you can never get to that deep place because you are allowing your inner life to atrophy really, to wither.
And that's a very high price to pay. I think we've all been feeling it. All of us who have been connected in a big way in the last couple decades and I know I have been, have been feeling that. And that's sort of this anxiety that you can feel seeping up in society where people are beginning to view their handhelds and other devices, not so much as the friends we thought they were seven or eight years ago but they're beginning to feel like enemies in a way and burdens. And I think we need to correct because they do still have so much potential to help us and it's just a matter again of strikes a better balance.
Question: Does new technology change human intimacy?
William Powers: Yeah, I think that we're wrestling with intimacy today. I don't want to say we're rethinking it because I think intimacy is intimacy and you know it when you have it and you know it when you experiencing it. I think that we are experience new kinds of intimacy that are wonderful. The most obvious example is probably Skype, you know to have a Skype conversation with somebody is different and its got its own potential partly because you're able to have this visual experience at a distance that's unlike other visual experiences we've had in the past as human beings.
It opens up possibilities that we're just beginning to discover. Weirdly enough I find in some ways Twitter to be a new kind of intimacy that's sort of exciting. To be, you know, intimate as much of the day as you want at 140 characters a shot with those x 100 or 1,000 people who are your followers, is really wild. It's sort of this new space that you're in with just those people exchanging short thoughts. And it can go to fascinating places, you know, so I think there's new kinds of intimacy emerging but they haven't changed the essence of what intimacy is which is I'm really having a connections with another people or with a group of people that is special, that's a true connect.
That's taking me to a place that I want to go to and its valuable to me. And so in that sense I think we're also learning they're some ways in which the technologies pretend to offer into intimacy but don't. And this is something we experienced in my family over the years and I write about this in the book at some length, where the kinds of intimacy you typically have in a home with parents and a child was being sacrificed because of all the time we were spending at the screen. The three of us, my wife, and I have one son who's 12.
And we were turning our backs to each other, you know, during private time at home on weekends and so forth, when we should really have been facing each other and spending quality time, the kind of intimacy we traditionally associate with families. We don't want to give all that up to the screen I think. And so there is screen togetherness that families are enjoying obviously but it's not the same thing. So you need again, a healthy balance is my mantra. So what we did as a solution is we began unplugging on the weekends. We started an experiment, it's now over three years ago where we do what we call the Internet sabbath.
Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson