The Disconnect of Being Perpetually Connected

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. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Where is this drive toward connectivity leading?

William Powers: You want to be connected all the time.  This is where society is headed.  This is where the cool people are.  This is where the knowledge is.  This is where all the forward thinking people are.  And that in fact has been true for the last 15 or 20 years.  That's the direction we've all been moving in.  I called it digital minimalism in my book.  The more connected you are the better.  I think its finally donning on people that, that really deserves a second look.  That it's not taking us to the place as thinkers, as friends and parents, and teachers, all the roles we play in our lives, that use of digital technology, nonstop around the clock, isn't serving our highest purpose as it's becoming clear to most thoughtful people.

So the question is just raising your own consciousness and stepping back from it and thinking, "Am I going about this the best way?"  This always happens, I'm returning to my historical theme now.  But it always happens in the early stages of technology.  You know the telephone in the early days of marketing the telephone particularly in Europe.  It was marketed as a one-way listening device for listening to the opera.  No idea that it might be used for as a two-way conversation device, which actually turned out to be the best use of it, but it hadn't occurred to people.

Question: Is there a technological solution to our overuse of technology?

William Powers:  I think there are going to be a lot of tech solutions, ways in which the technologies will evolve to help us.  I think the ones that we have in place today that are available are not the best, you know, they're very primitive this idea that a filter can actually go through your email and prioritize what you should see now and what you should see later and so forth.  They're really, really crude and I think people who have tried them, people I know have just antidotally abandoned them.

But I think we are moving in a direction where the machines are going to become – they're always becoming more intelligent, let's face it.  You know, they're going to evolve in the direction where they help us but at the same time we can't just rely on machines to do the rethinking of the technology for us because after all these are the technologies that we're concerned about.  And they don't have brains as strong as ours.  It's up to us to figure out how to design them for our lifestyle and where we want to take ourselves.  So I think the most important task we have now and this is really what I argue in Hamlet's Blackberry is to change our own thinking about the devices so we recognize that we need balance to get the most out of them.

And that once we have that balance the devices fixing themselves will actually become less urgent because we will have done the primary work of repairing our own consciousness about the devices.

Question: Can people realistically disconnect from technology?

William Powers:  Yeah, there's so many practical steps that it's almost impossible to list them all.  In fact, in touring around talking about my book since it came out a few months ago, everywhere I go I hear about somebody who has some new twist on how to disconnect.  So, you know, in the book I talk quite extensively about rituals that people can develop in the office for example where some forward thinking companies have tried certain days of the week without emails, certain hours of the day, quiet time for employees, away from screens.

This is happening at colleges and universities.  Those rituals are very useful but there are also all kinds of tailor-made, interesting things that people are trying.  I'll tell you one that is sort of humorous that came up in a radio call-in show.  I was on a radio – a public radio show talking about my book.  And somebody called in and said – a friend of his, it wasn't the caller but a friend.  When he goes away he gives – on vacation and he knows he's going to have a hard time disconnecting, the day he goes away he gives all of his passwords and user names to various friends.

So one friend will get the Twitter password, user name.  Another friend will get Facebook.  Another friend will get the email and then on the day he leaves they're all under instructions to go in and change the user name and password so he has no access even if he wanted – if he tried to sign on when he's away, he can't.  And when he comes back they give him the new passwords.  So it's these hilarious sort of creative spins on disconnecting that people are trying because they see how addicted they are.

And I think it's wonderful.  I think it's going to be different for everybody.  The methods I talk about in the book that I've tried and that people I know tried, companies that I've studied have tried, are not going to be for everyone.  You know, I think we're all different, we all have different needs, we all have different tolerances.  I don't pretend to tell other families that they should disconnect on the weekends the way we do.  There are some parents who work on the weekends, you know, it just happens to work for us.


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