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: Is technology a kind of external brain?
William Powers: I think increasingly we do think of it that way, as a very helpful extension of our brain... really of our brain power, of our memory capacity. We can offload a lot of burdens onto technology now and not have to carry around so much information ourselves, you know. We can carry it in a cloud or whatever happens to be the metaphor of the moment. And really sort of not feel that we have to be kind of our own hard drive. We have a hard drive that works for us but the problem is that potential was there. But I think we're not using it the way we might. There is this sense that you do have to be carrying, literally the hard drive around with you all the time and therefore yourself being accessible to all these distractions and all these tasks that can come at you all through the day.
If it's true that technology is there to relieve some of the burden, why do we all feel so burdened by the technology? That's sort of the disconnect, if you will, of the new connectedness that I think we need to fix. I feel many ways in which... I love it that I can store so much on my hard drive and the notes that I'm taking for my next book, they're already piling up in there and it's so great. I don't have to worry about notebooks or even carrying the thought around with me. But if I'm also walking around all day just at the beck and call of that little screen in my pocket, I'm not following through on this fantastic ability I have to be less burdened by the age of information.
Question: Does technology replace memory?
William Powers: I think less use of memory for tasks that it's not so important to use memory for perhaps, for the more mundane, less creative aspects of memory perhaps. I mean, if you need to store a lot of data just to have it, just in case but it's not data you need to draw on in important ways for your work or for your everyday life that's beautiful. I mean, I think that's what the hard drive's all about. We don't want to reach a point where I think where we feel, "Oh gosh I don't have to remember anything because it's all going to go on my Blackberry or my Blackberry is thinking for me." Because, as we all know, you know, the beauty of the human brain is it's wonderful associative ability.
It can make new associations. This is the essence of creativity. New associations better than any device ever created and probably that ever will be created. You can't replace that with a computer, so you have to have the crucial framework of facts and experiences and learning really permanently stored on your own hard drive in order to make those associations. If they're living somewhere else, you can't make those creative associations that are uniquely human.
But I think for the really, really sort of ordinary or massive amounts of information that you might only need to draw on once in a while, it's sort of equivalent to the way that card catalogs of libraries moves onto hard drives. You know, you wouldn't want to know everything that's in a card catalog but you want to be able to draw on it when you need it and figure out if there's a book on x-y-z given subject. It's the same thing, you know. That kind of stuff, the big time storage of the stuff you don't need everyday, these devices were made for that. But in terms of the things you might need to call on today because it could contribute to some project you're doing, you don't want to get rid of that, obviously.
Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson