One spring day a few years ago, alone on his boat off Cape Cod, writer William Powers fouled his propeller on a mooring line. He leant overboard to free it and fell in, drowning his mobile phone.
Being a man used to constant electronic contact with the world, Mr. Powers first considered this a “disaster.” But actually, it was an epiphanous moment.
As he records in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry, a Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, it took only a few minutes before his angry contemplation of the probability of a couple of phoneless days — the hassles of deciding on a new model and new service contract, reloading all the numbers, et cetera — was supplanted by something else.
“It’s an inner sensation, a subtle awareness” he writes. “I’m completely unreachable.
“Just minutes ago, I was embarrassed and angry at myself for drowning my phone. Now that it’s gone and connecting is no longer an option, I like what’s happening.”
He began considering the nature of life in an increasingly hyper-connected world. Hyperconnected, by the way, was a designation given in a 2008 study, referring to people using an average of at least seven different digital devices and nine different applications to stay in constant touch while “on vacation, in restaurants, from bed and even in places of worship.” Sixteen per cent of the world’s working population were hyperconnected then; the study predicted 40 per cent, soon.
Well, Mr. Powers is not one of them. These days he and his family make a point of getting off the digital treadmill from Friday night until Monday morning. It’s a big change from the way they used to live.
While Mr. Powers was never one of those “absolutely hopeless addicts” who have to check their messages, or send out a tweet or text every five minutes, he had, by the early part of this decade, when WiFi came in, become really hooked.
“It was hard for me to go half a day without checking an inbox,” he told the Gazette this week. “If we visited family members who happened to have no broadband connection, I would do that crazy thing of going in the back yard and trying to get a neighbor’s signal. Or even drive around in the car looking for a signal.”
Likewise, his family had a habit of “all disappearing from the living room because of the call of the screen.” They were cohabiting but existing for much of the time in separate digital worlds.
But now they are in their fourth year of practicing what he calls the “Internet Sabbath” ritual and, he said “the benefits are profound.
“In a way we just went back to the way we were before this connectedness became so extreme in our lives. But there is a more effortless togetherness in the house and outside. We work, play, more together.
“And we’re even better at being alone, because even as a person just sitting there in a nook of the house, you’re not feeling that temptation to go check on what I call the digital crowd.”
The benefits even carry over into the wired week, he said.
“The connected time itself is less frantic, hectic. We feel less trapped by it because we’ve spent less time in this other space.
“For a lot of people that space has become a foreign land and they just never go there,” he said.
It’s not like Mr. Powers is some kind of latter day Luddite. It’s not a question of the new technology; he is still a big user of it. It’s a question of managing it such that enriches, not impoverishes our lives.
“The costs,” he said, “are beginning to outweigh the benefits.
“There is a theory going around ... that it is actually changing our brains. But I did a lot of reading into brain research and we’re very early in saying that. We just don’t have anything solid.
“And my own experience suggests that if you have a couple of days off on a regular basis it all comes back. So I don’t think it’s something happening to the machinery of the brain as much as the states of mind we’re creating.”
Nor is it just a matter of personal loss. He cites evidence of economic loss as well. One study last year by a New York company estimated that as of 2009 the annual cost to the economy of information overload was almost a billion dollars.
Quite apart from employees engaging in private communication on company time. Often, he said, workers are “toggling between distractions and never being able to focus on one thing.”
“It’s ironic that these tools that were meant to make us more efficient and effective so often make us less so,” he said.
Lots of us know the feeling of being buried by work e-mail, for example. Back when Mr. Powers kicked his digital habit, it would have seemed “insane” for someone to receive 300 such e-mails a day.
“Now, that’s often the norm,” he said.
He is hopeful a new balance will emerge. His book, in fact, goes back in history to other moments when new means of communication were introduced, bringing their own pressures. Thus the reader gets insights from people who were around at those times — Plato, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau — about the adjustments that had to be made.
The title of the book, in fact, refers to another epiphanous moment for Mr. Powers.
“I was reading Hamlet and listening to him talk about his ‘distracted globe’ — as he refers to his own mind — and realizing people have been through this before, that this is not the first era that has faced this challenge,” he said.
He also pointed to another aspect of the book’s title: the fact that it refers to a ‘philosophy’ for dealing with the digital age, not a ‘prescription’ or a ‘program.’
“There are all kinds of studies coming up with prescriptions, but I tried to stay away from specific prescriptions in the book, because we are all different. I simply say it’s all up to the person to be more thoughtful about what serves their purposes,” he said.
“There is an infinite number of approaches. You could take just a few hours in a day where you put your BlackBerry in a drawer...”
He is mindful too, that not everyone can choose, as he has done, to go off the air on weekends.
One of the ironies of writing such a book is that the need to publicize it threatens to drag one back into the hyperconnected world.
“I haven’t changed my regimen, but during the week I’m back in the mainstream of how people are living today and I find it’s much more hectic than it was even a couple of years ago when I slightly went off-line to write the book. So I feel all the more strongly about how important it is to a find a balance.”
Even his publicist, he said, takes weekends off.
And while he has to be on Facebook and Twitter, because “that’s where to find the people who need the message the most,” he is restrained about it.
“I didn’t try to up my number of friends to thousands. I’ve got about 70, up from 20 a few months ago. But those 70 really know me.
“On Twitter, my name is HameltsBB, and I say right on my page that my philosophy is one tweet per day, Monday to Friday. I strive for one useful or interesting or provocative thing per day, usually book-related but sometimes not,” he said.
The most interesting thing Mr. Powers has found while publicizing the book is the level of interest from younger people.
“The people who really respond to the message is people under 35. It’s not from people in their 40s like me, or in their 50s or 60s, because it’s become so de rigeur for us older people to sign on and try to be like the digital natives.
“I have no scientific data on this, it’s all anecdotal, but what I’m picking up is that the digital natives themselves are beginning to question what I call maximalism.
“It’s embryonic, this feeling, but the book seems to bring that out in people and that’s really wonderful,” he said.
William Powers will discuss and sign copies of Hamlet’s BlackBerry on Saturday, July 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vineyard Haven.