A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Tackling the ‘conundrum of connectedness.’ An award-winning media critic on the advantages and pitfalls of living in an age of ever-changing technology.
- William Powers a two-time winner of the Arthur Rowse Award for media criticism and a former staff writer for the Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Our era's communication devices make it possible for humans to connect in ways never dreamed possible before. But it's come at a cost. The equally strong human need for time and space apart to study this conundrum of connectedness. Media critic William Powers looked to key moments of technological change in the past to see just how philosophers, from Plato to Marshall McLuhan, balanced their era's new communication devices with the need for quiet reflection. The result is a new book titled "Hamlet's BlackBerry." And author William Powers joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMWe'll take your calls between now and the top of the hour, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook. You can send us a tweet. William Powers is former staff writer for The Washington Post. He's written about media and technology for the Atlantic, The New York Times, McSweeney's and other publications. So I'm sure you'll be part of the conversation, and I look forward to hearing from you. Good morning. It's good to see you.
MR. WILLIAM POWERSGood morning, Diane. Thank you.
REHMAnd I know that this book grew out of research you were doing at Harvard. You said, at first, it was kind of hard to get a handle on it.
POWERSIt was. You know, this question we're all struggling with of our connected lives, where we have these wonderful technologies that pull us together and bring all this information to us, and it's -- they are so rich in so many ways and enriching but at the same time are imposing a new burden. It's hard to navigate all this information and all these demands on our attention, and that's the conundrum that I really was hoping to solve. I felt it in my work. I felt it in my family life. And I think we're all feeling it. So I had a little time at Harvard as a fellow to look at one aspect of it, and that's what grew into the book.
REHMAnd so, as soon as you got hold of philosophers, somehow it became more clear?
POWERSWell, what happened was, I looked around the present day landscape and I didn't see any answers. You know, I see us all walking down the streets staring into our iPhones. And we seem like we're bumbling around a little bit, we're not making the best use of these devices. They're kind of taking over, really, parts of our lives that they shouldn't take over. And it seemed like it's not the wisest use or the way to live with them. But I didn't see anything in our world that was helping me. So I decided to look at the past, at other moments of technological flux, if you will, to see if we could learn something from those periods.
REHMGive me an example.
POWERSWell, for example, going all the way back to the birth of, believe or not, of written language, of the alphabet in Ancient Greece. And believe it or not, that was a real vexing question for the Greeks. And it comes up in Plato. They struggled with it. They asked some people, including Socrates. Plato's teacher actually thought that language was going to destroy the mind, would make it harder for people to think well. And so -- and once alphabet took off -- and Ancient Rome is the next point I look at -- people felt -- begin to feel overwhelmed by information. By the time you get to the Renaissance -- and the printing press is well underway -- there was authentic overload. In fact, there's a scholarly book coming out this fall about information overload in the Renaissance. So you go right through the 19th century, the telegraphic keeps coming back. So I looked at seven moments when this happened and focused on one philosopher who can help us with this dilemma today in a practical way, ideas we can apply.
REHMIt was interesting because in reading the chapter, which begins with the telephone call to your mother, you kind of were able to clarify in your own mind the value of this new technology. Read it for us, if you will.
POWERSI will. Thank you, yes. This is a passage about the upside, if you will. It's called "Hello Mother." "I'm in my car driving into my mother's house. She lives about two hours from me and close to one of those small city airports where it's easy to park out in front. The lines are short and the security people are friendly. When I travel for work, I try to book my flights out of that airport and I get to visit my mother on both ends of the trip. This time, I'm catching an evening flight and she's cooking dinner. As usual, I got a late start and won't be arriving anywhere near the time she's expecting me. So I need to call her to say to say I'll be late. I wait for a stretch of empty highway where it feels safe to look away for a few seconds."
POWERS"I opened my mobile phone and hit the 4 key, which is programmed with her home number. A photo of my mother appears on the screen, a head and shoulder shot that I took months ago with the phone's camera. I later selected it as her ID photo. So it comes up automatically when I call her or she calls me. I really like this image of her, and I contemplate it for a moment before putting the phone into my ear. She's wearing a pink and white striped sweater and looking up at the lens with a certain cat-that-swallowed-the-canary expression she always gets just before bursting into a laugh. She laughs a lot. So this is a characteristic look for her. In other words, the phone captured something essential about my mother."
POWERS"When she answers, I tell her I'm on my way but running a little behind, and she chuckles knowingly. We've had this conversation so many times, it's kabuki now, and we both know our parts. She says she'll hold dinner, and why don't call I her again when I'm 20 minutes away. I agreed to this and tell her I can't wait to see her, and we sign off. I take the phone from my ear, glance again at the photo and then hit end and watch it disappear. Driving along, I feel an unexpected surge of emotion. I'm thinking about how fun it always is to spend time with my mother. How lucky I was to be born to such a warm, companionable person. Lately, I've noticed shades of her humor in my son and I wonder now if he, somehow, inherited that from her. Have they isolated a gene for good naturedness? As the minutes passed and I drive along, these thoughts about my mother flow into new ones. In my consciousness, the smile from the photo merges with the pine woods on either side of the highway, and the jazz playing on the radio beamed down from a satellite miles above the earth."
POWERS"Memories rise up out of nowhere and flit around me in the car. They're not specific memories of particular events, but rather scenes in which I see my mother doing normal, habitual things. In the video archive of the mind, these would be the generic clips I filed under Mom. There she is walking across the lawn, sitting under a beach umbrella with a book, talking to someone at a party, holding her sides as she breaks up over a funny story. For a while, the car is a floating cloud of filial affection and, well, joy. It's extraordinary, this feeling of time out of time. Everything dreary and confusing about my quotidian life has dropped away. I'm not the rushed, cornered inadequate creature I often feel like. I'm absorbed in these memories, which seemed to come from a place both beyond me and deep inside me, as if far and near, outward and inward, have come together in a new harmony."
POWERS"My mother and I are no longer connected in the literal sense as we were minutes earlier. Yet, I'm feeling a connection to her that is stronger than the one we had when we were actually chatting. Even as I enjoy this, I find myself thinking about the tool that engendered it, the unprepossessing, low-end, clamshell-style phone now sitting dormant in a cup holder. How did it do that?"
REHM(laugh) William Powers, reading from his new book. It's titled, "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." We do look forward to hearing your calls, questions, comments. Do join us. So, in those few seconds, really, you had a physical, vocal, emotional connection...
REHM...with your mother through that telephone, her image, her voice and then your own internal images. I must say, I find that the time you spent after that phone call is the kind of time I feel I have on planes.
REHMWhen I'm totally disconnected...
REHM...I'm above and away from here and everywhere, and that is a rare moment.
POWERSIt is rare. You know, the reason -- one of the reasons I told that story in addition to just wanting to show sort of the magic of these devices and what they can do for us is that you have to have those gaps. The connected moments, like the one I had with her -- and I think this applies to all our connected moments -- are not as valuable if you don't have a gap between them, you know. If you're just constantly connecting, hopping from one person, one task to another, and never stopping to take it inside and really let it go somewhere inside of you, you're not gaining as much as you could from the devices.
POWERSSo the point is not to run away from them, but to really achieve some balance. And the way we have to do it, I think, is to create more of those moments ourselves by thinking more about our connected lives. That won't happen by accident. The ones on the airplanes happened because they happen to have this rule against wireless, although that rule...
POWERS...has now gone away.
REHM...I hope they don't change (laugh) the rule about cell phones.
POWERSI know. That would be the worst.
POWERSBut already, I regret -- you know, I hate to say this. It's a sign of weakness. But I regret that I can now go online on airplane because I'm tempted, and I love the way there was no choice before. And now, on so many flights, you can do it.
REHMYou, in your own family life, have periods where there is no connectedness...
REHM...except within the family.
POWERSRight. Well no, not no-connectedness. What we do is we call it the Internet Sabbath, and it's not religious in any way. It's secular. Friday evenings, we turn off the modem for the household wireless router, and it stays off til Monday.
POWERSWe found that we were being pulled apart from each other by our computer screens. After dinner, we would go to gather in the living room to be together and something began to happen. I noticed this years ago which I developed a name for it, the vanishing family trick. One by one, we would peel off on some flimsy excuse. I have to go check something. I need a glass of water, and we wouldn't come back. We were each going to our corners of the house and to really meet up with the digital crowd, as I call it.
REHMThe new book is titled, "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." William Powers is the author. Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. William Powers is with me. He is a former staff writer for the Washington Post. He has a new book out, all about our connectedness through various pieces of equipment. His new book is titled "Hamlet's BlackBerry," and in it he looks back at six eras in the development of -- sorry, seven eras in the development of communication, going all the way back to Plato and Socrates. We will take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. You see, even as you encourage people to take breaks here, I am encouraging them to join us in those very ways. But you talk about digital maximilism.
REHMWhat do you mean?
POWERSWell, I wanted to come up with a phrase that described how we're living. I think we're living by a philosophy, although we're not conscious of it, for these devices, a philosophy that's guiding us. And basically it comes down to the more connected you are, the better. Maximalism. The more of this I can get, the better. Look around on the sidewalk when you're out in public. It's how we're all living more and more from the BlackBerry, the iPhone, the computer screen. And I don't think it's a very smart way to live, but it's hard to wrap your mind around it, unless you have sort of put a label on it and name to help you understand it. So I called it digital maximalism. And I endeavor in the book to come up with a new approach, which is just one of balance, that the more connected you are, the more you need some disconnected time.
REHMHow do you believe that this so-called digital maximalism may be able to affect our focus...
REHM...both positively and negatively...
REHM...as well as our depth of understanding?
POWERSWell, it can help us -- maximalism itself is a problem, I think, because it's too much of a good thing. But the connectedness, the basic connectedness, the potential for depth and exploration and learning is infinite. I mean, the Google age is a wonder for research and for learning and we have so much at our fingertips. But when you come at it in a maximalist way where you're constantly taking in new stuff without any of these gaps between that I mentioned earlier, you can't focus. You're constantly toggling.
POWERSWe see this in our daily screen lives, Facebook, to Twitter, to inbox and back again, and cycling, and so many people, so much information. It makes focus nearly impossible. And it's not just hurting us at home. It's really hurting us in the workplace. Employers are beginning to realize they're losing a lot of money from distracted employees. There are figures running into the hundreds of billions for the economy at large, per year, in losses from information overload.
REHMThen the question becomes how your family handled this Internet or connected Sabbath.
POWERSUh-huh. So we just decided we would do an experiment, my wife and I. We would take these two days off a week, which are the natural two days, the old weekend, and be disconnected from this one channel, which is the computer screen. We don't disconnect the phones. We actually still have our mobile phones, but they're not smartphones, so no email can come in. And basically it's sort of back to physical togetherness and the third dimension in our house, back to the voice, where people call us if they wanna reach us.
REHMWhat about your kids?
POWERSSo we have a son who was nine at the time. He's 12 now. Very big challenge for all of us when we started. We're in our fourth year now. Biggest challenge for him, because like all kids, he loves these devices. All the kids are using them.
REHMNo video games, no nothing.
POWERSNot computer, generally. We still have television as a family togetherness event, which some might argue, wait a minute. That's more -- but we find television as different because it's not interactive. It's more of a relaxing activity we do together. It works for us. We do regulate TV carefully, but we enjoy it together, including on the weekends. But the Internet stuff, the digital stuff that we find, if taken to excess, can be so draining and was leeching so much out of our family life, is ramped down for those two days, and we find the benefits -- this focus you talked about -- that flow right over into the rest of the week. We enjoy our connected time more, Monday through Friday, because we've been disconnected...
POWERS...just a few days earlier. It's, again, this idea of balance.
REHMHow did the earlier philosophers deal with it?
POWERSWell, there are a lot of strategies as you go through time. It depends on what the technology was. But the basic principle really goes all the way back to Greek times. The dialogue, the Platonic dialogue I talk about in the book is one called Phaedrus, in which Socrates simply takes a walk in the country with a friend. And the point of the walk is really to get away from busy Athens and be able to talk about something they wanna talk about, a speech that someone else has given. And it's the young friend who has the idea to go who convinces Socrates, who's a bit of an addict when it comes to oral connectedness, which was how people communicated then. Socrates is reluctant to leave town because he loves his connected life in Athens. But the friend says, I'm taking a walk in the country. Please come. And they have a fantastic time. Having opened up this distance between the city, the busy city, and then -- and their conversation, they have a richer connection.
REHMThe conversation is between two people rather than being distracted by the world around them.
POWERSRather than a crowd. And they also used a written copy of the speech to talk about, which was a revolutionary thing then. And Socrates is also very skeptical of that.
POWERSAnd he barely seems to realize that that written document, that alphabetic document, is helping them achieve this distance. So in that case, the new technology was really helping them create one of these gaps that I think is so useful. Plato clearly saw the point of written language because, after all, he wrote this dialogue down, which is why we have it today. So there's many levels on which you can look at this, and it's the same at each moment in history.
POWERSYou get to the 19th century and Thoreau had wonderful thoughts about connectedness. He wasn't just the natural Luddite that you might think he was. We have a -- there's a lot to learn from Thoreau's approach to domestic life, and basically how to sort of set up zones in your life. I call them Walden zones. Maybe a room in the house where you don't have screens. All kinds of lessons we can learn from these people.
REHMWhat about Guttenberg?
POWERSGuttenberg's achievement, in the classic telling of the story, was obviously the reproduction of uniform texts so we can all be reading the same books, and there could be many copies of books chiefly made -- cheaply made. And that is a wonderful achievement, obviously. That's what drove so many changes in the succeeding centuries after Guttenberg.
POWERSBut what's often overlooked is that Guttenberg did another thing. He took a technology -- the book -- that had been previously enjoyed mostly in public, and actually reading was done aloud until Guttenberg's age. It was common, even when you're alone, to read a book aloud. People hadn't really thought much about silent reading. He allowed reading to become a private activity where you could be apart from others. Because books were more affordable, you could have your own book. And again, you could take that experience more inward and do more with it than you could potentially do when you had to gather in crowds and the business of crowds to hear a book.
REHMSo interesting because that's almost the time of day I look forward to more than any other, is the time set aside just before going to sleep...
REHM...when I'm reading. And it just seems like such a rich private time...
REHM...whether it's for 20 minutes or half an hour or whatever. It's not usually terribly long, but it feels so rich.
POWERSIt's very special. And I think that the value of that time -- there's a lot of talk today about how hardcopy books are about to be obsolete. I think their value in a connected world is actually rising. The more connected we spend our days, the more we need that time with a book that is disconnected. I mean, a paper book is this almost island away from the chaos where you get to spend that special time. And I'm a skeptic about books going out of style. I really am.
REHMI think you're absolutely right. We've got lots of callers. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Daniel, who's in Gettysburg, Pa. Good morning. Welcome to the program.
DANIELGood morning, and great topic, guys. You know, I jokingly call my phone's iPod -- my wife's iPod her boyfriend because she brings it to bed with her. I absolutely despise it. But, you know, I'm a fan of Thomas Aquinas. And I remember reading how he walked from one kind of Italian village to another, and he would think, and he would be alone. And I'm wondering if losing that space to think, you know, those long periods of silence -- if we haven't also lost those types of thinkers, if that kind of deep, you know, contemplative motion is just lost forever -- because really you don’t really get that anywhere anymore.
POWERSIt's a wonderful point. I had an epiphany that helped me decide to write the book, which was I had my mobile phone with me one day when I was in a little motorboat we have -- I live on Cape Cod -- and I fell out of the boat with the mobile in my pocket. And the mobile died, effectively killed it, drowned it. And I climbed back in the boat. I was all alone out in the water and I found myself unreachable for the first time in what felt like years. No one could reach me. I couldn't reach them. And it was exhilarating. At first, I was mad at myself. But a little time passed, I started the boat up again, I started to go across the cove, and I realized this is a really important state. Just like Aquinas, these moments apart are crucial, and I've lost them. Where did they go? I wanna get them back. And that's what I think we need a strategy for. I don't think it's impossible. I think it's something we have completely within our control. I'm a complete optimist about this. And I just think it's a matter of stepping back and giving it a little more thought than we've given it for the last 10 or 15 years.
REHMHow have you and your wife been affected? How has your relationship been changed?
POWERSBy the devices or by wanting to disconnect?
REHMBy the lack thereof.
POWERSYes. Well it's helped our family life in manifold ways. I mean, when you're really with someone having eye contact, really spending time focused on each other rather than sort of monitoring what might be coming in next from the screen, which we all sort of do with part of our minds during the day now, when that's not possible and you really disconnect from the world in order to connect with another person, you really go to another level. And it's the level we should want to be at, I think. And I think we're sacrificing it or we have been sacrificing it incrementally over the last decade and a half without even realizing it was happening. We were caught up in the completely understandable euphoria of a new technology.
REHMDo you think you're son has benefited?
POWERSOh, yes. And he now is a convert. I mean he tries to -- he tries to convert his friends. You know, the friends, like any kids, 12-year-olds, they're texting. They're completely getting into this world and this technology as they should. And he comes at them with basically our message, which is, you know, it's great to spend a few days without these things. It's great to go out in the woods and build a fort -- which he's been doing lately -- and not have his cell phone with him. We can't reach him. He's on his own. And that's pretty special when you're 12.
REHMI should say. And we're talking about William Powers' new book, "Hamlet's BlackBerry." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now tell me about Hamlet and how he connects to the BlackBerry.
POWERSYes. Well in Shakespeare's time, there was a gadget that had appeared that was incredibly popular, and it was called tables. It was a little book that you opened up. And there was a surface inside that was covered with a plaster-like material. You wrote on it with a stylus during the day, notes, things you needed to organize your life, and at the end of the day you could erase it, which was an amazing innovation for its time. And people were feeling very busy. Shakespeare was arguably one of the busiest time -- persons in Renaissance England. And these helped people sort of bring their connected life -- if you will -- under control. So in the play Hamlet, Shakespeare gives Hamlet one of these devices. When he meets the ghost, he feels confused, he feels stressed out, he's just gotten this terrible piece of news about his father's murder. He says, my tables, my tables. He pulls it out of his pocket and begins writing on it, notes to himself about what has just happened to him. It's an example of a technology, again, helping someone in a time when information was creating some stress and making it hard to focus. In fact, Hamlet refers to his own head as this distracted globe. When he was distracted, he went to his tables for a little relief. So it's an instance of technology helping us. I think our technologies could do that if we use them more wisely.
REHMSo by writing this book, what you are encouraging people to do is not to give up what they've become so dependent on but perhaps to give themselves space.
POWERSYes. I just think we need an -- we need to rethink how we're living with digital devices. And it's not a big rethink. It's really a few simple ideas, a few simple principles, some new habits. You know, habits are wonderful things. You get into a new habit with a positive goal and it can really change your life. This simple habit we've done with the disconnected weekends, it is -- it's phenomenal what it does for you. You enter a whole new space. We had withdrawal in the beginning. We had a hard time pulling back. When we tell people we do this, often their eyes go very wide and they say I could never do that, I can't even imagine it, because they're so accustomed to it. But after a couple of months, it became second nature and we'd never go back.
REHMDid your son actually -- was he in the habit of bringing his little device to dinner?
POWERSAt that time -- at age 9, he didn't have a mobile so there was nothing to bring to the table. But like us, he was in the habit of racing off when dinner was over to check the big screen, the computer screen. He has a Mac. And I saw that happening, and watching him do that made me realize, oh, wait a minute, I can’t criticize that. That's exactly how I'm living. He probably learned it from me. We need to do something. And so that's when we started our experiment.
REHMAnd the experiment, has it blossomed? Has it lead to other changes?
POWERSIt has in the sense that we sometimes extend it. We've had a day during the week when we'll do -- 'cause we know it helps us get our work done sometimes to actually open up that space between ourselves and the digital world. So sometimes we'll take a day that's a Sabbath that's midweek. It also has blossomed in the sense of our relationships with others. It's a wonderful topic to talk about with friends 'cause everyone is struggling with this. So with a -- one evening a neighbor was at our house, a woman down the street who was a mother like my wife and also working like my wife, very busy -- and she just all of a sudden burst out, all I wanna do is disconnect for a little while. And when someone says something like that, I say, you know, there are -- A, there are ways to do it and, B, this is not a new challenge, you know? The ancient Romans struggled with something analogous. People in the 19th century struggled. It's a human challenge that goes back to the beginnings of connectedness and that's why I think it's one that we can really meet.
REHMWilliam Powers. His new book is titled "Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." Short break now. And when we come back, it's time to read your email, your postings on Facebook, your tweets and go to the phones. Stay with us.
REHMAnd lots of reaction to William Powers' reading his mom-on-the-phone chapter from his new book "Hamlet's BlackBerry." Here's one from Jennifer who says, "I had to dry my tears before writing after your mom-on-the-phone story, but marveled at the relevance to the last 12 hours. My 19-year-old son and I had a late night conversation about a book he loves, 'Food of the Gods.' And the contention, the collaboration leads to compromise and true creativity blossoms in an individual's isolation."
REHM"He wanders at the pre-language state of men in which concepts were truly universal."
POWERSI, you know, I did think about that pre-language state, and I write about it briefly in the book. And I wondered what connected this was like then. We can't know, for sure. But I also have been trying to imagine how thrilling it must have been when language was born and people discovered they could use this connectedness...
POWERS...and this new way to -- you know, that was an invention, the ability to speak with words. And I'm sure they had hello-mother experiences just like the one I described as that took off.
REHMHere's an email from Jeff in DeKalb, Ill. He listens on WNIJ. He says, "One thing that bothers me a lot about the current communication style, news groups in particular, is the desire to respond by saying Google it, rather than providing an answer to the question posted. Part of asking other people questions is the social value of doing so."
POWERSThat also gets that the issue of the depth with which you know things. When you only know things because you just Google them and you spouted off and then two minutes later it's gone, you don't really know them. You know, it's not the same as taking that information inward and really making it a part of you. And if all you do is Google all day, you really never get to that.
REHMYou know, a friend of ours walked into my husband's bedroom the other day and looked on the bookshelves and saw Encyclopedia Britannica.
REHMAnd he said that is the first time in years I've seen an encyclopedia. Why aren't you Googling? Well, my husband does not use a computer.
REHMSo he continues to rely on the encyclopedia and can provide me with the information in depth anytime I ask him.
POWERSAnd yet it does go both ways. You know, there are things that you can't find in an encyclopedia...
POWERS...that you can only find by Googling. And that's the wonderful thing. I mean, to have both, I think, is the ideal.
REHMLet's go to Phillipston, Mass. Good morning, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETHGood morning. And thank you for taking my call. I...
ELIZABETH...love what you're talking about (laugh).
ELIZABETHMy husband and I have -- we're on the other side of this. I teach yoga, and in fact, I started the Harvard yoga program, like, in 1982, and he's a Tai Chi teacher. So we looked for a place to live that was on a swamp, that was quiet. And we kind of dipped in to the chaos. He, much more than I do. But it's interesting, because as you were speaking, I wondered, you chose just to do Western philosophers. And I wondered if you had looked at any Eastern philosophers.
POWERSGreat question. I did, and in fact, I read Eastern philosophers habitually. I love, in particular, to read Zen philosophy. I decided consciously to do Western philosophers in this book because I feel that we are still at bottom of Western society and that it would be more accessible to people, to readers, generally, to start there. And to recognize that there is a tradition in the West that is somewhat parallel to the Eastern philosophy in terms of recognizing the need for space apart. The kinds of things that you and your husband explore in yoga and Tai Chi. So I was -- it was a conscious decision on my part. It might be something I could revisit in the future.
REHMExactly. I was about...
REHM...to say, maybe a new book on the Eastern philosophy.
POWERSTurn eastward. Yes, that would nice.
REHMExactly. Absolutely. Thanks for calling, Elizabeth. Let's go now to Fort Wayne, Ind. And to John, good morning to you.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
JOHNAnd I was immediately intrigued when you guys started talking about this topic because I've had discussions with my family, in depth, about these, especially my parents. And talking about my generation, I'm 24 years old. And for me, I still have one of the clunky clamshell cell phones that you were talking about. And all I wanted to do is have a phone. But when I talk with a lot of my friends, I notice that for us the quality of our conversation and communication with this whole connection and dependence on the visual age has degraded significantly. And for me, I love to have a conversation around the table with some of my friends. But some of my younger ones, I see that with them, if I ask them a straight question face-to-face, they would rather answer it in an email or text message to me.
POWERSYeah. I really like your observation. I -- it reminds me of something that's been happening to me. The book hasn't been out very long, but I have noticed the pattern already. It was purely anecdotal, but it is fascinating to me that people who plug into this message in this book most readily and seem to get it instantly are under 35, which is the opposite of what a lot of baby boomers would expect, I think. We've been told for years now that digital natives, as they're called, younger people only want to live on screen. And I think there is a dawning awareness among people your age that, no. You know, there is more to life than screen interaction. There is a richness to -- in face-to-face exchanges. And then just time spent here in the third dimension with each other that can't be replicated on screen. And it's been so refreshing to meet some of these young people and hear that from them.
REHMI'm so glad you called, John. David in Washington, D.C. says, "Neil Postman wrote a similar book in the early '90s. What is your voice adding to what Marshal McLuhan and Neil Postman did..."
REHM"...in the past?"
POWERSWell, I have a whole chapter about McLuhan. And I recommend Postman's book, actually. In my book, I have a further reading page, because I read it. It's a wonderful book.
REHMHe was on this program when it came out.
POWERSHe was a terrific writer.
POWERSWhat I think I'm adding is, first of fall, updating their ideas for the digital age that neither of them lived in. McLuhan really anticipated it brilliantly and sort of told us where we were heading. But there were many aspects of it that he couldn't foresee because you can't see the future with 20-20 foresight. And similarly for Postman -- and I find myself reading Postman. My one hesitation about his work is he's often quite pessimistic. And I'm more hopeful and optimistic because I see this pattern in the past where people do figure over time....
POWERS...the best ways to use technology.
REHMWhat about George Orwell and his prognostications regarding the voice from above and the way that we hear messages from television these days?
REHMI mean, isn't his pessimism, his forecast that people would use language in such a way as to actually twist...
REHMIsn't that coming true?
POWERSThat's absolutely true. You know, Orwell was brilliant on what was happening to language in his time, and I think it's to the 100th power today. The Big Brother idea, though, has not come to fruition the way he foresaw it, rather than it being in a Democratic society, the supreme leader who is telling us how to think. In a way, curiously enough, the idea that freedom and slavery is being imposed on each of us by ourselves. You know, I think that we enslave ourselves to the technology by just letting it take over our lives.
REHMWhere do you think radio fits in?
POWERSYou know, radio is fascinating because it was supposed to be dead 60 years ago. And it was one of those...
REHMI remember. (laugh)
POWERSYes, you would. It's one of those cases -- and I also discuss this -- of a prediction being dead wrong of people not realizing that a technology that did one thing well but didn't do everything well can have its own uses and endure into the future. You know, people thought, well, why would you want a box that only has sound, when you could also have video? But there's something wonderful and liberating about only having sound.
REHMMy thinking about radio has always been that it's strictly the voice connecting with the mind...
REHM...out there rather than being distracted...
REHM...by the images. So messages come through very clearly and directly...
REHM...on radio. It's mind to mind.
POWERSIt's interesting. You know, in the early days of radio, Diane, as I'm sure you know, people found it overwhelming actually this barrage of sound coming out of a box. And now, because it's less information than what we get elsewhere, it's actually soothing.
REHMActually, I think that NPR probably provides more information.
POWERSYes. No, I mean, in terms of pure stimulation, in terms of the barrage of moving video and all these things that are not happening. So you don't have to sort through as much.
REHMTrue. True. All right.
POWERSIt's richer information.
REHMTruly richer. Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Gary.
GARYGood morning, and I love your show. And...
GARY...William, I compliment you on writing this book.
GARYI've been studying many indigenous groups and American Indian elders. And much of what they are saying is that we need to find that inner being within. So I've been teaching meditation classes, and with that I've been finding many times that I ask people to turn their cell phones off, and they end up putting them on vibrate. So as you're trying to move in to the silence or quietness within, you may hear a phone vibrate. So with that, I think what I am finding is it is hard to separate from how we get so caught up in our consciousness.
REHMIt has to be a conscious decision.
POWERSYes. And you know, if more people were as conscious of it as you clearly are, and were thinking about it, I don't think we'd be facing quite the conundrum we are. But we've been, as I said, we've been kind of bumbling around, and it's time to be a little more thoughtful about it.
REHMI'm glad you called, Gary. Now, to Tim, who's in Severn, Md. I gather, you're on vacation, Tim.
TIMWell, I was. About two weeks, my wife and I were in Louisville, Ky. for the National Square and Round Dance Convention. And normally, I love to travel and I don't have a homesickness problem. But when the -- we were listening to the radio in the car and they announced that, from WAMU in Washington, "The Diane Rehm Show" came on. And I was really surprised with the intensity of my reaction to that. And I started to think about it. And it was the connection back from a different -- from a strange situation back to my normal routine and my normal geography. And that, along with today's program, got me doing a little philosophized thing of my own that what my wife and I do with the technology, the email and cell phones and others, is it really helps us to keep track of or to keep in touch with family and friends and our own personal history that we have scattered all over the country and, in some cases, around the world. That it really -- that the technology really does help us keep connected with what otherwise would be hard to get in touch with.
POWERSOh, there's no question. I mean, that's really the point of my hello-mother story is here we can reach out. You can reach out to anyone in the world who has a device and -- in a sense, be with them. The question is if you're being with thousands of people every day as, you know, people on Facebook now have thousands of friends and never really stepping back for one those connections and spending quality time with that person, it's really not as rich as it could be.
REHMTim, I hope you had a great vacation.
TIMWe did. It was wonderful.
REHMThanks for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Reminds me of a moment when I was crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for the very first time by myself.
REHMAs a little girl, I had hidden on the backseat of the floor of the car because I was so fearful of heights. And I realized that I needed something to hold onto. So I turned on the radio and there was my friend, Lee Michael Demsey, with his beautiful voice talking about Bluegrass, and just made me feel grounded. I hope, Tim, that hearing "The Diane Rehm Show" from Kentucky was good for you as well. Let's go now to Jacksonville, Fla. Very quickly, David, please.
DAVIDYeah. What it seems like we're talking about here is driving for presents and controlling the presents around us versus having the intrusions from the past or the future come in and control us. It seems like that we extend our presents by the memory of the mother, but you're in the present at that time. The technology can really take you out of that, and if you don't spend enough time in the present, all these things about creative ideas and centering and who you are and what you wanna do, really don't process.
POWERSYes. If you, you know, you can be present, using technology -- it can help you or it can make you less present. You really have both options. And it's all about showing up for your life as fully as you can.
REHMI like that. Showing up for your life, but you do that right now in ways that may be more than is really good for you.
POWERSYes. In other words, if you start trying to connect maximally, as I would put it, all the time, you're doing what's essentially a good thing, but you're overdoing it. And suddenly, you're less present than you could be. And in the end, if you live that way fulltime, you're not showing up for your life.
REHMYou seem so calm. (laugh) Do you think that that's because you have written this book?
POWERSWell, I think it helped me think about it. And I also think that it's very calming to talk about this message because I think it's something that people have been eager to hear, someone who has thought this through. So it actually makes me feel calm just to communicate about it, believe it or not.
REHMWilliam Powers, his new book "Hamlet's BlackBerry." And it has two BlackBerry's on the front. One which is smiling and disconnected, the other, which is frowning and connected, subtitled, "A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." I'm going to take all your advice. Thanks for being here.
POWERSThank you, Diane. It was wonderful.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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