William Powers is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Hamlet’s BlackBerry. He’s algo been moderator at the Socrates España Seminar “Privacy and Profits in a Data-Driven Marketplace”. The New York Times called him an “apostle” of the next wave of digital thinking.
What motivated you to write Hamlet’s BlackBerry?
I was one of those early adopters who dove head-first into the digital revolution. I found the new gadgets incredibly exciting, full of potential. But as wireless broadband took off and it became increasingly easy to stay connected 24/7, I began to notice downsides. The more time I spent staring into screens, the less attention I was paying to my family and the world around me. Moreover, being immersed in all that incoming information was turning my mind in a kind of traffic jam. After hours of digital multi-tasking, I found it hard to focus, to quiet my thoughts. The devices that were supposed to be making me more efficient and creative – and enhance my connections with others – were having precisely the opposite effects. This seemed crazy. Technology should be working for us, not vice versa.
I concluded that we were living by a de facto philosophy that nobody had named or described. I call it Digital Maximalism, and it’s simply the notion that the more connected you are by digital devices, the better. It’s not a very smart way to live and I decided it was time to find a better philosophy. Hamlet’s BlackBerry is about my search for exactly that.
You don’t just write about the digital era. You go back into history and examine earlier tech revolutions. Why?
I’d been writing about the media for years and I knew that civilization had been through moments like this one before. So I decided to look at previous epochs of rapid technological change and see what we could learn from them. In the book, I visit seven historic moments that have parallels to this one, including the challenge of information overload. To my surprise, I learned that this was a problem in ancient Rome, in Shakespeare’s time, and during the telegraph era of the 19th century. In each of the seven moments, I focus on one thinker who examined these questions in ways that I found inspiring and helpful. They include Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau.
What is the key lesson the past has to teach the digital age?
That it’s all about balance. To live happily and productively in a connected world, you have to master the art of disconnectedness. Technology is wonderful – it’s how we built this amazing world. But we have to be careful not to surrender our freedom and humanity to our machines. My book is all about keeping it human. I write about specific ways anyone can do this, and the great benefits that come from such practices.
You wrote Hamlet’s BlackBerry 5 years ago, do you see any advances?
Absolutely. There’s been a wonderful awakening about the challenges I write about in the book, as well as other issues that have emerged in recent years. People everywhere are rethinking the assumptions of the early digital era and coming up with new approaches. Young people are leading the way. It’s when I speak at universities that I realize that today’s young adults are going to take these devices to a whole new place. And that’s a good thing. Baby Boomers started this revolution, but they didn’t get everything right. Far from it.
How are initiatives such as the Socrates Seminar related to these challenges?
Socrates actually plays a big role in my book. He lived at a time when an enormously important new technology, the alphabet, was just arriving on the scene. And his philosophical method is a brilliant way to wrestle with the challenges presented by new technologies. The idea is simple: Get a bunch of smart, curious people together and have a great conversation. And like Socrates, we use questions to drive the conversation. Often it’s the simplest questions that spark the most interesting responses. On the first day of our recent Aspen Socrates Seminar in Ronda, Spain, which was about the question of privacy in a data-driven marketplace, I asked the group, “What is the point of data?” It’s one of those big-picture questions we don’t often have a chance to ask, let alone answer. That’s what the Socrates Seminars are all about. They’re a chance to step back from our busy lives and do some deep thinking together. It’s a rare thing these days but a needed thing, if we’re going to meet the many challenges currently facing the world.