Google DC Talks and FOSI Present: Breaking Digital Dependency

Uploaded by googlepublicpolicy on 25.02.2011


ALAN DAVIDSON: In the past I should say the sweet spot for
these talks has really been technology and what I guess
I'd call wonkery.
We've had talks about mobile apps, cloud computing, the
latest geolocation technologies.
We've had privacy debates and policy debates about
government surveillance and free expression in the
developing world, and the future of the internet, and
So now for something completely different.
Today's talk attempts to tackle the much more personal
topic of how we all live in this digital world, how we all
live well in this digital world.
And I think it's Google's little way of saying, gentle
listener, we do really care about your mental health.
I was first introduced to this book--
it's an excellent book--
Hamlet's BlackBerry by our moderator
today, Stephen Balkam.
And at the time I was reading Nicholas Carr's book in a
similar vein, The Shallows.
I guess for technology optimists it's really
important to spend a little time looking at some of the
dystopian, negative critiques.
But what I was really struck by--
I'd say this book really struck a chord, it struck a
nerve with me particularly because it offers a little bit
more of a road map, a way of thinking personally about how
we all live in this world.
And I think it's just no secret that the modern age--
the modern digital age-- takes its toll on all of us.
We're creating these tools, we're creating some of them at
Google, that have incredible power, right?
That the ability to connect us all, to empower people, to
promote the exchange of ideas around the world, as we're
seeing, to create economic opportunity.
We talk about this stuff all the time here at Google.
But these same tools can plague our daily lives, right?
And as this book, Hamlet's BlackBerry, so neatly
explains, if we don't use them carefully they can consume our
lives and take away the opportunities for deeper
thinking and personal connectedness that are so
important to us as human beings.

You know, I think we are actually living in a very
interesting moment.
We're going to be tempted to use technology to help us
solve these problems, right?
We're building at Google our priority inbox to help us all
sift through our email.
Microsoft has this brilliant marketing
campaign around their--
the phone to save us from our phones, right?
I love that.
But technology is probably not going to be the only answer
here, maybe not even be the most important answer here.
I think all of us individually are going to have to figure
out what works for us personally as we try to manage
these tools.
And I also think that society--
we're going to have to be developing new norms to help
us figure out how to be good to each other as we all
embrace some of these approaches or mechanisms to
give us some distance and help us find depth in our lives.
And I think that is just uncharted territory.
Right now all the demands, especially in a place like
How fast can you return that email?
How soon will you get back to that phone call?
And it's going to be interesting to see as a
society whether we end up needing to adopt a little as
we take up some of the techniques that are spelled
out, perhaps, in this book.

I would just say that I was delighted after reading
Hamlet's BlackBerry to find out that I had inadvertently
adopted some of the tools.
We have, for example, a
no-BlackBerry zone in our house.
No BlackBerrys above the first floor.
I highly recommend this as a tool for marital harmony.
I hadn't realized I had created a Walden zone.
But I think these are the kinds of tips and tricks that
all of us could use.
And that's why we're so delighted to have you all here
today and to have our guests.
So let me try to introduce them.
First of all, our moderator today is Stephen Balkam, who
is the founding CEO of the Family Online Safety
Institute, one of the preeminent family safety--
I should say, online safety organizations in the world.
I've known Stephen for--
WILLIAM POWERS: A long time.
ALAN DAVIDSON: --a long time.
And I would say anybody who's been working on internet
policy or online safety has encountered his work.
Starting with RSAC and ICRA, he was behind developing some
of the early and most important content and media
ratings systems out there.
And now congratulations to him for the tremendous work that
he's doing.
Were you born here in Washington?
STEPHEN BALKAM: Right here in DC.
ALAN DAVIDSON: I learned that only this
afternoon, so good to know.
He is responsible for insisting that we have our
featured speaker here today, William Powers, who has
written this wonderful book.
William started his career here in Washington actually as
a Senate staffer, am I right?
WILLIAM POWERS: Senate staffer, yes.
ALAN DAVIDSON: And then went on to launch a journalistic
career at The Washington Post as writer in the late '90s,
had written a column that I actually remember, "The
Magazine Reader," which set him firmly in place as a
leading thinker on media in the digital age.
And his work's been published widely in the New York Times,
the LA Times, The Atlantic.
He's received numerous awards, and in 2008 he started writing
a book about how we all navigate this digital age.
And the result is the book that is on the tables over
there, and we'd encourage you to purchase if you don't
really have a copy.
We're delighted to have him here and I will turn it over
to Stephen.
Join me in welcoming our guests today.
Thank you.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Thank you Alan.

Well thank you so much for that Alan, and
it's great to be back.
We co-hosted the very first Google DC event back in 2007,
I think it was with Jonathan Zittrain.
He talking about his new book, The Future of the Internet and
How To Stop It, which I thought was a great title.
And we've had a great relationship.
We've done events out in Palo Alto as well with Rachel
Dretzin and Digital Nation and Growing Up Online.
It's just fantastic to be here.
Our tour guide yesterday, Bob Boorstin, where's Bob?
There he is.
--tells us, sadly, that this space is going to be built out
into offices, so this is I think one of the
last events in this--
BOB BOORSTIN: Not the whole thing.
BOB BOORSTIN: Not the whole thing.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Oh, not the whole thing.
Oh, good.
So there will still be a space, and we're just
delighted that Google is having us here today.
And this is a brave topic for a tech company to be taking
on, so appreciate that very much Alan.
I just want to start with a little survey.
So how many of you have BlackBerrys with them?
Anyone got a BlackBerry?
How many iPhones?
I have an IPhone.
How many-- since we're at Google-- any Droid phones?
Look at that, the majority.
Now I'm going to ask for a little bit of audience
participation before we even begin.
And this may be really, really hard for you to do, OK?
I think you know what I'm going to ask you to do.
Switch them all the way off, OK?
Now some of you may not know how to do that particularly
being in Washington and at Google.
If that's not possible for you we can go the halfway mark and
just put it on mute, OK?
But if it buzzes or vibrates try to ignore it if
you can, all right?
Because in the spirit of what we're going to be talking
about I want to check back with you all at the end of
this hour or so and see how you got on with just switching
off your PDAs and your so on.
We do have some designated Tweeters in the room so--
ALAN DAVIDSON: Are they exempt?
STEPHEN BALKAM: There's one of our designated
Tweeters at the back.
So they can go ahead and do that.
And if you feel like you have to have the urge please don't
cause yourself an injury.
Go ahead and tweet but just wanted to offer you that as a
So I first met Bill in New York in October at a Nominum
customer conf--
And I see Jon Shalowitz here,.
Where's Tom?
Tom Tovar.
Tom took the rather unusual step of buying it must have
been 200 copies of this book and signing them himself and
putting them on the tables where we were all sitting just
before Bill came out to speak.
And that speaks to the extraordinary way in which
this book influenced and impacted you,
Tom, and you, Jon.
And I thank you very much for introducing me to
Bill in this way.
You know, the book I found deceptively easy to read.
You have a particularly economic style, I would say,
but it also swept me up in a bunch of stories.
And I think what's particularly compelling is
that we're kind of hard wired for stories and you weave in a
number of those.
But before we get into that, just a really simple question.
So why this book and why now?
WILLIAM POWERS: Good question.
Well before I answer I want to thank you for the kind remarks
and Alan thank you too for all the wonderful things you said
and for having me and thanks to all of you for being here.
I really, really appreciate it and I'm so honored to be able
to speak at the about the book here at Google.
When I was writing the book this was not an event I
expected to do, frankly, and it's fantastic to be here.
And in fact it's been fantastic to have the
technology people really from all over the place including
this wonderful company, Nominum, embrace the book.
I realized after it came out and I started meeting people
like Tom and Alan that technologists and people who
work for technology companies are, of course, more connected
than anyone.
And so these effects that I write about in the book, the
way the technology can become a burden and feel like it owns
you if you don't design your life properly and think about
it properly, comes home to them even more strongly than
to anyone because that's what their day is like.
And so, of course, it makes sense that those people would
tune in to this idea.
But what I didn't expect was how open to it they would be
right from the start.
And I really am grateful for that.
I got into the book in two ways.
One, I had been writing about the media for a long time and
so I was always thinking about this aspect of our lives.
What's it like to live in an electronic age?
This is even pre-internet I was writing about it.
What's it like to live in a world that's being made
smaller by these inventions?
And I had always focused for a long time on the content.
I was really writing as a media critic about the news,
and the New York Times is doing a good job on this, CBS
News is doing a bad job on that, whatever.
It was really about the message.
But as the digital age blossomed and we became really
more intensely connected than we'd ever been I began to
realize how right Marshall McLuhan was.
You know, the medium was the message.
And it was very much about the tools and the speed with which
they could deliver information suddenly, and the degree to
which we could be connected to so many more people and so
many more sources of information than ever.
And I, from the beginning, found very exciting, and have
always been an enthusiastic adopter of these gadgets and
inventions, and really love them to the point where I
started to realize, early in the past decade, that I was
loving them maybe a little too much.
And I began to feel this weight of my connectedness
begin to work its way into all these corners of my lives
where it was--
not right away I didn't feel like it was
taking things away.
I just started to feel that I was tethered to it a little
too strongly and was answering its call a little bit too
But I didn't know what to do with that.
I didn't know what to make of that part of my life.
And it was happening incrementally.
So I didn't wake up one morning and say,
oh, there's a problem.
It was just kind of a voice in the back of my head.
And then I had a chance to spend a semester at Harvard as
a fellow-- as one of these open-ended fellowships-- where
I could write an essay on anything I wanted.
Just completely free rein.
You have a research assistant, you have an office, you can
use the resources of the university.
Have at it.
Really incredible dream offer, which of course I took.
And I went up to Cambridge and I did a project, an essay on
one little tiny slice of this, which I won't get into in
detail, but it was about the future of paper as medium,
this stuff.
What's going to happen to the hard copy?
Is it really disappearing for good?
Because I sort of felt A, that I'd had a great life using
hard copy media, including these guys, and had gotten a
lot out of them.
And B, the more connected I got digitally the more I was
finding a funny appeal in hard copy media specifically
because they weren't connected.
Because it was a little bit of oasis away from where I was
spending most of my days at the screen.
So I wanted to look at this question of whether paper was
in fact really dying as a medium.
So I spent a semester doing that.
I wrote an essay.
I called it "Hamlet's BlackBerry" because I used a
moment from Hamlet in the essay, and the subtitle was
Why Paper is Eternal.
And that was a provocative subtitle.
I got on NPR and other places talking about it.
And that led to publishers coming to me and saying, would
you like to write a book about this specific topic, paper.
I said, no, I've had my say on paper but I'm interested in
this bigger question about my life.
What's happening to my life in a connected world?
We all seem to be going to this new place but we haven't
examined it.
There seems to be this assumption on one side that
it's a fantastic utopian place.
And it can't even be questioned it's going to be so
fantastic once we're all connected, once we have the
chips in our brains and so forth.
And then on the other end there were these people
saying, no we're entering a new dark age.
And it's going to be slavery, and we're going to hate it and
be just miserable from now on because of these same devices.
And I didn't believe that either because I knew from the
history of technology that those two camps always appear
every time a new device comes along.
And the pessimists are always wrong because people
ultimately figure out how to live happily and productively
with a new tool.
It just takes a while.
And I felt like we were in the midst of figuring that out,
and hadn't done it yet.
So maybe I could make a contribution with a book that
helped people think about this so we could get there more
quickly and more intelligently than sometimes we've done in
the past. At certain transitions in the past it's
taken a century or more for people to figure out the most
intelligent use of a new tool.
So the way I got to outlining the book, the way I did is in
the midst of writing, after I sold the idea, I started going
back to those moments and focusing on these transition
moments just like this.
As long ago as 2,000 years ago when some new tool came along
and people were excited about it on one hand and really
caught up in all the
possibilities like we are today.
And on the other hand some people were doubting it and
saying, wait a minute, this is taking stuff
away from our lives.
This could be bad if we don't do it correctly.
And I wound up focusing on seven of them, and using those
moments as stories, as you say, because I think people
can relate to stories to help people figure out a way to
strike a better balance today.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Well let's start with your own story.
So here you are, you're a highly successful journalist
in the nation's capitol.
You're working with Bob Woodward, you're doing
incredible stuff, and next thing you've gone to Cape Cod.
Now what's that about?
And when you got there you did something even more remarkable
on the weekends.
I think that the move to Massachusetts, it was kind of
a family decision.
We were here, my wife and I had our whole careers here
since college--
two decades for both of us, almost two decades--
and we were just ready for a little change.
And I'm from New England and I wanted to expose my wife to
New England.
And we had a tie to this little town on Cape Cod where
we had had summer vacations.
And we were in a position where we were both no longer
going into an office to write so we were freed from the need
to really have to live here.
So we took a year and just tried living there for a year,
and we decided to stay.
It was really that simple.
And we thought it would be nice to raise our son in a
small town and still do our same writing
we've always done.
But the funny thing is, we got there thinking, OK, our crazy
lives that we've had in DC are finally going to calm down,
and we're going to have this incredible peaceful existence
and be productive, and be--
everything will be organized, and there won't be any
traffic, and all of this stuff.
And of course, the whole world is connected now.
So if you have screens in your house you're connected to all
the sources of your work and all the good stuff and all the
information that we need to do our jobs.
And in fact, we were able to move there because of the
digital medium, so it was very much because of the
But still we found that in this 18th century house on two
acres in the middle of this beautiful place, we were
feeling all this crazy business that we felt here.
Because we were all, in different ways, addicted--
the three of us-- to our digital lives.
And that's not a bad thing completely.
There's all kinds of amazing benefits we get
every day from it.
But we knew something was wrong, my wife and I, when we
started to notice that we would gather in the living
room after dinner-- and I recount this in the book--
for family time and one by one we would each peel off on a
really flimsy excuse.
I have to get a glass of water.
I have to go to the bathroom.
I'll be back in a minute, and of course it wasn't a minute
it was the rest of the night.
You know where we were going.
You know we were beating those little trails to that place
where we all go nowadays.
And we were doing fun things there.
And we were emailing each other across the house.
All of that.
But it's not the same as being together and having eye
contact and being away from what I call the digital crowd
in the book.
The digital crowd is wonderful and brings all kinds of
benefits but there's another kind of crowd, a very small,
intimate crowd, and that's a family.
And we felt we were being pulled apart by this tool, and
it shouldn't be that way.
There had to be a new approach.
So one of the things we did-- and this was actually when I
was doing the Harvard fellowship, it was kind of
parallel to what was happening with my thinking about tools--
my wife and I decided to start unplugging on the weekends.
And just pulling the plug on the internet--
the household internet--
Friday night, off line Saturday and
Sunday every week.
Let's see what happens.
Maybe we'll restore some of the stuff that we were losing.
I mean at one point the book I say I felt as if, almost as
if, love itself, all those acts of heart and mind that
constitute love, were being leached out of the house by
our screens.
And we had to do something about that.
That was the biggest loss I can imagine.
So we did this funny ritual.
We called it the internet Sabbath.
And it really was kind of miraculous.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Are you Jewish?
Nothing, and there's nothing--
STEPHEN BALKAM: Religious in any way?
WILLIAM POWERS: We're not very religious, no.
There's nothing religious about it really.
We just took Sabbath weekend, whatever, it's
just a random thing.
We almost just jokingly came up with it, internet Sabbath.
Little did I know that people had websites where they talked
about this and everything.
Other people were--
They Googled you and you're all over the religious sites.
I had no idea that this was happening.
So we did--
STEPHEN BALKAM: You start a church.
WILLIAM POWERS: It was incredibly hard-- yeah, it
could be a church-- it was
incredibly hard in the beginning.
I mean desperation time, unbelievable
group existential crisis.
Who are we?
what are we going to do?
It's a whole Saturday.
We're just here in the house.
It doesn't feel like a real house anymore.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Did your son leave home?
I mean, what happened to him?
WILLIAM POWERS: He almost did.
It was a very hard transition.
We didn't know how dependent we were on our digital lives--
I think we have that phrase up here, digital dependency--
until we tried to break away from it.
And we realized, wow, this is really, like, it's part of our
brain and part of our soul almost.
And what was interesting was those two days a week, once we
got in the rhythm of doing it every week, it got easier.
And it also did this amazing thing where we enjoyed the
weekend time together.
But we also found during the week we were better digital
people, we were better digital citizens because we'd
had the time away.
Because we'd open up, what I call in the book, the gap
between ourselves and the busy digital world.
And when we come back on Monday we just have
perspective on that, and we're calm, and we enjoy it again
because we've been away from it.
It's like having a vacation.
You come back from vacation to your cubicle and the cubicle
looks pretty cool.
It used to look like a prison cell but not anymore.
Well that's what happened.
And we're now into our fourth year and we still do it every
darn weekend.
It's great.
STEPHEN BALKAM: How about that.
How about that.
So let's think now--
you mentioned--
Alan you mention the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
He of course, of the famous "Is Google
Making Us Stupid" article.
ALAN DAVIDSON: I think that, was Nicholas Carr.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Sherry Turco has just come out with Alone
Together a rather pessimistic tome on social networking and
robotics and God knows what.
But you've taken a very different thing.
You haven't gone to the research.
You haven't done any field studies.
You just went back 2,000 years and checked in
on Plato and others.
What was that about?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well my thinking was that I've read a
lot of these type of books-- those books were not out yet--
but I've read a lot of these books that are
research-dependent, that are dependent on neuroscience,
that are really effectively looking outward to experts to
tell us how to live our lives.
And I always find that very unsatisfying because it's
impersonal, it's abstract.
And the built-in assumption of that approach to life is I
don't know anything.
The world should really shape how I think about my life.
I should take all my cues from the crowd, effectively.
And I don't think that's ultimately the most productive
or happiest way to live.
I think that we know a lot right in here that we don't
give ourselves credit for.
And I also think humanity has an incredible history of
thinking about these big questions and coming up with
very creative and practical answers to these questions.
And I knew there were people embedded in the past, some of
them almost forgotten, who had thought about this very
question, and that I should go to some of those people and
see if I could glean some lessons.
Because to me, reading Seneca--
sitting and reading Seneca-- about finding his life was out
of control in ancient Rome, and he was too busy to think,
and didn't feel like he had a minute to himself, is so much
greater solace than reading some new neuroscience study
that says the hypothalamus or something I don't understand
inside my head is lighting up when it's under certain
It doesn't do anything for me the way another human being's
experience does, and that person's story and how they
solved the problem.
So how does Plato to relate to internet overload?
WILLIAM POWERS: So Plato lived at a time when--
and Socrates, his teacher-- lived at a time when the new
tool was writing, was the alphabet.
This tool that we take so for granted we don't even think of
it as a tool.
We don't even think of writing as a technology.
But in ancient Greece that was the radical new-- that was the
Google, that was the digital, amazing new
event that had arrived.
And Socrates, Plato's teacher, in this dialogue that I talk
about in the book, called [? Phaedo, ?]
is incredibly unbelievably worried about
it, and against it.
And he basically said we're going into a dark age if you
do that writing thing.
Don't use the alphabet, you won't know how to think
creatively, it freezes the thought on the page when in
fact the thought should be moving between two people,
live, in conversation.
This was oral society.
And so in a way, he had reason to think that because he was
coming out of this golden age of conversation when they did
reach all these amazing insights and figure life out
in certain ways.
And he probably figured, well, why should we give that up?
Life's been good with conversation.
Why do we need these crazy letters on the page?
They just sit there dead.
That's what he said.
And Plato records that.
So you would think on the one hand that he's in favor of
that point of view because he gave us this story.
And he doesn't intrude and give a different view.
But wait a minute, he wrote it down.
STEPHEN BALKAM: He recorded it.
WILLIAM POWERS: And he used the very tool that Socrates
was telling us to stay away from.
And then the only reason we know the story is
because of that tool.
And of course, this is the beginning of an amazing
Western tradition of recording thoughts that created our
society really.
Thank God we didn't follow Socrates' advice.
So the beauty of that story is A, that it's about the dark
age view being wrong.
B, also in the same dialogue they have this whole
conversation when they're taking a walk from Athens to
put some distance between themselves and the crowd.
Socrates doesn't want to take the crowd because he loves all
that chatter in Athens, all that conversation.
That's his ball game.
He says, no I don't want to leave the city, this is where
it's all happening.
His young student Phaedrus says, no, listen to me.
We'll take a walk and we'll clear our minds.
So even in oral society people were learning to open up these
gaps between themselves and their busy lives, effectively
their screen lives, although it was a
different kind of thing.
So that's really the first case of this
same dynamic happening.
And you mentioned Seneca, so all those Roman roads brought
all that papyrus work to Rome to for him to have to handle.
And empire itself was a kind of connectedness.
Think about it.
Suddenly they were telling you you're part of the Roman
Empire, you're a Roman.
And that requires certain things of you.
You're a Roman citizen.
Everywhere you go you're going to see legionnaires, you are
going to see all these reminders.
You've been tied together with people in a new way that has
all these new responsibilities.
That itself was a kind of connectedness in addition to
papyrus and the use of writing, and books were
exploding at that time.
And so Seneca writes-- and Seneca was effectively the
Emperor for his five or six years of Rome, ruling for the
young Nero.
He was really, really busy.
He was running the Roman Empire and he found time to
step back and say, I got to figure out how to manage this
for myself.
And he came up with a similar concept, but a little bit of
different spin.
He said even when you're in the midst of a busy crowd you
can find distance by learning to focus your thoughts on one
idea or one person.
Something that we can use today, I think, when we're on
Facebook and we've got all those people scrolling in
front of us, and it's hard to keep track of all those
updates you just got in the last five minutes from 75
different friends.
Why not focus on one of them?
STEPHEN BALKAM: That just reminds me of the bumper
sticker I just saw this weekend.
It says, don't bother me I'm mono-tasking.
So in other words, I'm not going to
text and drive, right?
So that's a good message for all of you out there.
WILLIAM POWERS: It seems like common sense, focus on one
thing, but it's really hard to do today.
I don't know if everybody in this room has had that
experience, but I have days when I can't really
settle my mind down.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Well in the Frontline documentary, Digital
Nation, Rachel Dretzin went out to Stanford and showed
that these hyper, multitasking kids who thought they were
brilliant at all this, when they actually were given
multiple tasks to do at the same time, turned out to be
not very good at any of them.
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, we're not built to multitask.
It's a complete illusion.
Two tasks at most. Humans can't do more than two.
They can, but they do them badly.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Maybe when we become cyborgs it'll be
possible, but we'll get into that later.
I really enjoyed the part about Gutenberg, not the book
side of that, which is a story I think I new fairly well, but
tell us about the mirrors that you discovered.
So in the book there's a chapter about Gutenberg, who
of course, the story's been told a million times.
I have him as a philosopher even though he wasn't really a
philosopher, as far as we know, but I think that by
inventing the printing press he was, effectively, a
technological philosopher because he changed
our lives so much.
So I turned him into a philosopher.
And one of the reasons I think he was a philosopher is that
before he invented the press he had this other invention.
Gutenberg lived in a time when people were traipsing all over
Europe in these pilgrimages to these great cathedrals.
Usually they were going to see some kind of sacred relic, the
swaddling clothes that the infant Jesus had borne, or a
piece of hair of a saint, or a little
piece of bone or something.
And they would get in these massive crowds around these
cathedrals hoping to get close to be able to touch or at
least be within the vicinity of these objects and get some
of the sacred rays that they supposedly threw off.
So Gutenberg realized that the crowds were getting so big
that people weren't getting access to the relics.
And they were using these little mirrors to hold up in
the air in these massive crowds and reflect the rays of
the mirrors back--
that were allegedly shooting out from the relics-- back
onto themselves.
They would hold the mirror in the air and supposedly bounce
the magic rays down onto their bodies so that they would get
this holiness they'd gone--
in some cases, hundreds of miles--
to get access to.
So people were selling these in the towns in Germany where
he lived, and they were very hard to make.
The artisans spent a long time making them.
They were hand-made out of different metals--
silver, and tin, and so forth.
He said, wait a minute, what if I figure out a way to mass
produce these?
He came from a long line of sliversmiths, and he said,
what if I stamp them out the way coins are stamped out?
And I could mass produce them really cheaply and go out in
the crowd, or have salesman who go out in the crowd, and
sell them for me.
And because I'd mass produced them I could sell them a lot
more cheaply.
I might really be able to sell tens of thousands of these a
day and get really rich.
So he put together a group of people and they came up with
this venture and they launched it and they apparently made
the mirrors.
We don't know how much money he made but he made these
little mass produced mirrors for these pilgrimages.
What does that have to do with us and technology?
Well what's interesting about that is it's kind of similar
to what he then did with the book.
The book, previous to the books that we know today, the
books that he invented-- mass produced printed books--
had been these devices that you had to
experience in a crowd.
You had to gather in a church or in some public place and
listen to somebody read from a book because books were too
expensive for people to own.
And in fact, most people couldn't read anyway.
So books were a crowd activity just like going up to the
relics and listening to the--
and trying to get the magic rays.
Once he mass produced the books you could get this
personal, private experience.
An inward experience of reading just like that private
experience of the holy rays that people were getting from
the mirror.
So in a way he was on the same theme, and it was all about
stepping away from the crowd.
Figuring out a way to take technology and give yourself a
space where you're not just hostage to all this jostling
that's around you.
And can have your own thoughts, your own
consciousness, have some autonomy.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So not one but two handheld devices.
Two handhelds, yeah, one of which was wireless, if you
think about it.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And miraculous.
WILLIAM POWERS: The first one was miraculous and wireless,
and the second one was a book.
And nobody knows about the first invention.
I stumbled on it reading about Gutenberg.
And I went into the archives and did more research about
it, and it's a really great story that he did that first
because the two are tied together.
It's about overcoming crowd thinking and crowd behavior to
be a person.
I don't even know if I'm in order here but--
WILLIAM POWERS: So far you are.
So everybody read Hamlet at school at some point, right?
We've had to have read Hamlet at some point in our lives.
I read it and then I had no idea that I'd read about this
thing called tables.
So what is that?
WILLIAM POWERS: So this is where the title of the book
comes from.
And basically, in Hamlet there's that famous moment in
the beginning when Hamlet's meeting the ghost for the
first time, and the ghost has this terrible
news about his father.
Your father was not killed by a snake he was murdered by
your uncle, who is now the King.
And Hamlet, of course, the worst news he's ever heard.
Completely doesn't know what to do, flustered.
And he starts saying, in the play, my tables, my tables.
And he starts feeling in his clothes.
Well I had seen the play 15 times probably.
I didn't know what he was talking about.
I thought it was a table, but why is he
feeling in his clothes?
He takes out a pad--
it looks like a pad-- he starts to write on it and the
moment just passes and you forget about it.
Well that thing he takes out of his clothing is
not really a pad.
It's a little device that was invented in
Shakespeare's lifetime.
It was called tables.
It was like these old wax tablets that people had taken
notes on for centuries that you could then sort of soften
out the wax and start over again with a stylist. But this
was a new version of it where you could actually write with
a stylus on this white surface and then wipe it
clean, erase it clean.
So it was an erasable tablet.
And the beauty of it was this was the age of print.
And people felt overwhelmed by all this information they were
having to navigate all day long.
All these books, all newspapers were starting up,
all kinds of printed placards, and all kinds of stuff was
around them with language.
Paperwork had been born.
It was a really stressful time, and there's actually a
new book out about it by a scholar at Harvard called Ann
Blair, about information overload in the Renaissance.
It was a time people were navigating this.
This device helped them keep track of their days.
They'd run around with their tables and they'd do to do
lists, and names of people, and addresses, and then they
could magically wipe it away and not have that burden of
the words the way print was kind of weighing around them.
This was almost a way of fighting
back against overload.
People were so dependent on their tables.
Montaigne, the philosopher, said he could not go anywhere
without his tables.
He had to have it in his hand.
Sound familiar?
But the beauty of the tables is that it helped people
organize their information overloaded lives, which I
think our devices could do a better job of.
And that's the message of that chapter.
I take it as technologically inspiring.
I think our technologists could do a better job of
turning these tools, these very digital tools-- you don't
have to run away from them.
I think the tools themselves could be better at helping us
organize them.
And in fact, we have technologists here today who
are working on exactly those questions.
So then you jumped to Thoreau.
And I thought I knew Thoreau, and Walden, and so on, but
then it turns out I'm--
well, I'm from DC.
My father's from Boston.
And I spent a couple of years up in Lexington, and we used
to go to Walden Pond and swim in it.
And I actually came across his little hut.
I don't know how many of you have seen it.
It's in a rustic little space there and you think, yeah,
this is pretty idyllic.
I can get where he was coming from until you realize that,
actually, he was within walking distance to Concord--
WILLIAM POWERS: Where he spent his whole life.
You walk up the hill, there all these telegraph wires or
telephone wires.
You go a little further and then there are
these railroad tracks--
WILLIAM POWERS: Right there.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Trains thundering by.
So not quite the idyll.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So talk about Thoreau.
Why did he find his way into this book?
WILLIAM POWERS: So I focused on Thoreau in one chapter
because of a couple reasons.
One is that Thoreau was not the refugee that we
think of him as.
He wasn't running away from his connected life.
He didn't hate technology.
We think of him as the naturalist who hated new
inventions, and so forth.
He was a technologist himself.
His family made amazing pencils, which is a
He was a great designer of pencils.
He believed in technologies that help you
improve your life.
He lived at a time when the telegraph, as you say,
appeared, and the railroad.
And society was really speeding up in a
very intense way.
And this experiment he did at Walden Pond-- if you read
Walden closely it was very much about trying to live
sanely and happily within a world where everything was
speeding up.
And it wasn't about running away.
He was back and forth to the village constantly.
He entertained as many as 40 people in that
little hut at a time.
Parties, he had parties--
WILLIAM POWERS: --at Walden Pond.
He wasn't trying to be a hermit.
He was trying to strike a better balance and make a
point about how to strike a better balance.
And he's very articulate about that.
And indeed, talks about the telegraph, talks about all
these things in the book and how, yes, they have all this
promise to bring us all these people all this information.
But are we going to use it wisely?
Or are we going to use it to-- at one point he basically
says, are we going to use this telegraph that's just been
laid across the ocean to find out what's happening to
celebrities in Europe?
Is that all we're going to be doing,
tracking celebrity gossip?
We can do better.
And let's use these tools wisely.
The other reason I talk about Thoreau is he built a little
house there, you know, that was a home.
And I take his experiment as really inspiring in terms of
our own homes and the idea that we can all have, as Alan
said, we can all have Walden zones within our homes.
You could have a room or a whole floor of your home where
there's no BlackBerrys, no iPhones, no Droids.

The kitchen could be designed as your most connected room
where you have all your family screens, and all the news
coming in, and all that stuff.
We sort of have a version of that in my house.
But the living room could be screen-free.
There's all kinds of variations you can do.
But the point is to think about zoning your life so--
STEPHEN BALKAM: We have the exact opposite.
The kitchen is a no-screen zone because that's where we
eat as well.
The idea of sitting down-- you see it in
restaurants, don't you?
The family sits down and dad pulls out his BlackBerry and
then mom, and then what do the kids do, they pull out their--
WILLIAM POWERS: Well, we don't have it during meals.
But when we we're around the kitchen during the day we've
got the news on, we've got all that.
And I love that.
But the point is to be thoughtful about it.
And zoning your domestic life is basically a version of what
the Thoreau did.
His whole cabin was a zone.
But it's a wonderful and inspiring idea.
So that's really the point of that chapter.
I also just love Thoreau because he was all about
recognizing that we have this wisdom inside of us and we
should tap that wisdom.
And we don't need experts to answer most of the really big
questions in life.
Let's jump to McLuhan.
What new did you find?
The medium is the message, we all know that.
What new did you find, and how did it apply to
your thoughts here?
WILLIAM POWERS: McLuhan the last philosopher, obviously.
He's 20th century.
He overlapped with this age of the screens if you include
And he kind of foresaw the digital age, so he's very
useful in that way.
He's also, however, very hard to read as anybody who's is in
this room has tried to read him knows.
He's really kind of a not completely reconstructed
academic who is still writing for academic colleagues more
than for the public.
So you have to kind of translate him for yourself.
But if you break the code of McLuhan he was basically
saying a couple of things.
One, he was saying that of course the medium is the
message and we need to pay attention to the tools.
But he also said the user of the medium is the content.
And what he meant by that is the tools change us.
We have to pay attention to our tools because they change
our consciousness.
They change how we conceive of the world, how we perceive the
world, how we think and feel.
And that's a major thing.
He felt that the arrival of writing had created a new kind
of human being who could think in a linear fashion, who built
up civilization a certain way, a left-brain civilization that
we have now.
And he felt that we were entering an electronic age
when that was going to shift, and we were going to be more
of a right-brain age, which in some ways
has indeed been happening.
So that was a wonderful insight.
But the last insight that he had that I feel is this the
greatest is that he felt we all had the ability as
He had this story of Edgar Allan Poe's that really
inspired him, about a man in a little fishing boat who gets
caught in a maelstrom.
And he's twirling around in the maelstrom and being sucked
into the middle of the earth basically.
And he figures out an ingenious way to save himself,
to actually survive the maelstrom by strapping himself
to a barrel and throwing the barrel out of the boat.
And the barrel, it turns out, because it weighs less, rises
up in the maelstrom, and he survives.
And McLuhan saw that as a wonderful example of how in
the maelstrom of a new technological age all of us
can come up with our own solutions and not only save
ourselves but thrive and be happy.
It was all about self-help.
And I think self-help kind of has a bad name because we
think of self-help best sellers and, oh, superficial,
and what do they know.
And I think self-help is what it's all about when it comes
to living with technology.
Taking control of your life so that you're showing up for
your life and really being present for your life.
And doing your best work, your most creative work, which you
can only do if you're using the tools really consciously
and carefully.
So I find him very inspiring in that way.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And actually it'd be interesting--
we'll be coming to Q&A pretty soon-- to hear if any of you
have come up with some little either Walden zones or little
It would be nice to share them in a self-help kind of a way.
Actually we skipped Franklin, and I don't
want to miss him out.
WILLIAM POWERS: Ben Franklin, right.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So he came up with some little rituals.
What were they?
So Franklin's in the book not because he lived in a time
when there was a new technology revolutionizing the
world because he didn't.
There were technologies but not communications
technologies that were revolutionizing the world in
the 18th century.
But Franklin's in the book because he was the connector
par excellence.
He was addicted to social networking 18th century style.
He loved being around people, he loved forming groups and
organizations, and basically the kind of thing we do online
line today.
He was crazy about being gregarious, and meeting other
people, and getting ideas like we do on Twitter today.
He would have been on Twitter in a heartbeat
and just loving it.
But he realized when he was in his '20s that all of these
tendencies he had and other tendencies he had too-- to
drink, and to have sex too much, and all kinds of stuff--
was leaving him scattered.
And he wasn't as successful professionally or personally,
and he wasn't as fulfilled as a person as he wanted to be.
So he realized, I got to figure out a way to organize
my life so that living in this amazing age of the
enlightenment-- although they didn't call it then but that's
what it was--
I could be happy, and I can do something special.
And as we now know, Franklin had a lot of talent for doing
special things.
So he came up with this incredibly simple ritual.
He made a list of virtues that he wanted to pursue, positive
virtues that he wanted to pursue.
Instead of drinking every day he would pursue temperance and
not drink as much.
Instead of blab, blab, blabbing, talking all the
time, which was his habit-- he used to bore people silly
talking too much--
he would pursue silence, a little bit of
silence each day.
All positive goals.
And that's one of the reasons I use him in the book is that
I think we have to think of these solutions we come up
with not as punishment, not as some kind
of puritanical denial.
They're taking us to a better place.
They're really like a treat if you come down to it.
This internet Sabbath that we do has become a treat for us
and a wonderful thing.
What we thought of as denial in the beginning turns out to
be incredible fun.
He turned all of his goals into fun, basically.
He made a list, he carried it around in his pocket on an
exact table, just like Hamlet's, that was still
popular in the 18th century, and he wrote on it with a
stylist. He carried that around with him from his 20s
to his 80s.
He never dropped this little symbol of his rituals and how
important it is to have this attitude about life of taking
your control in your life.
And in his autobiography he attributed everything he
achieved in life, which is a lot of stuff, as we all know,
to that one thing.
So I found that very inspiring.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So you mentioned sex.
And there's a great interview with Katie Couric online
@KatieCouric, is that right?
WILLIAM POWERS: It's called @KatieCouric,
it's her web show.
And she's very flirtatious, by the way.
I just thought I'd let you all know.
She brings up sex quite a lot in her interview, which I
thought, how on earth does this fit in?
But she quotes a survey that says 8% of couples have
admitted to breaking off in sex to--
In this interview she really was on the sex theme--
this interview with me-- and she was on
the sex theme a lot.
And I didn't know why.
She didn't warn me about this before.
She had read the whole book, which was fantastic, but she
kept coming back to BlackBerry in bed and--
STEPHEN BALKAM: What was that about?
WILLIAM POWERS: --and how many people do that.
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, our Katie.
I know.
She's all grown up.
And it was funny.
And it actually leads you to think about how far the road
we've gone down that there is a certain percentage of people
that has their BlackBerry and their iPhone in bed even
during sex.
People admit they check during sex.
Other people in church.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Oh, the church is good.
WILLIAM POWERS: The headline that ran with the interview--
and CBS News put it up right after we did it-- was "Sex,
Church, and the BlackBerry." That was the headline, which
of course gets a nice number of hits.
STEPHEN BALKAM: I think Google search is-- yeah.
WILLIAM POWERS: It was a very lively interview.
I loved talking to her about it because she had a whole
angle into it that A, I never associated with Katie Couric,
and B, that hadn't come up anywhere else.
That's the beauty of this topic is everybody's life is
being changed in some way that's slightly different, and
they have a slightly different perspective.
Every bookstore I talk in somebody asks a question
nobody has asked before.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And also, she has two teenage daughters.
I have a teenage daughter, a hypertexter.
I've hit 600 texts per day recently.
We've got the Verizon control so that doesn't come on until
2:10 in the afternoon, after school is over.
So yes, it hits personally.
So talk about--
I mean it's one thing for us as adults to try and come to
terms with this.
How do we as parents deal with this is an issue?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think the main thing as parents--
two things-- is to recognize that the kids' attraction to
these tools and affection for these tools is completely
normal and a good thing.
They are learning to connect to the world.
They are curious about the world, they are curious about
other people and information.
They want to get social.
They're hormones are raging.
All that stuff is happening.
That's good, that's wonderful, it's beautiful.
And you shouldn't talk to them about it as a
bad thing, I think.
But you should talk to them about it in a broader sense as
a thing that deserves consciousness, and that should
be treated as a central part of life that needs to be done
with a little bit of wisdom and care.
Because if you're doing 600 texts a day, in my opinion,
you're going down a path that might not end happily.
I have a young woman in the book who did 300,000 texts in
a month, which is even more than 600 a day.
And that's a lot of texts.
And the girl's quote in the news story that I picked up
was, "Sacramento Teen Says She's Popular." Well yeah, she
is popular but at what price?
At our house we have a conversation about it, and I'm
sure you're doing that too.
And that's the key is talking about it
around the dinner table.
Don't have the BlackBerry as something that you're just
trying to ignore or else using obsessively
and nothing in between.
It should be part of the whole deal that you talk about, all
the stuff you talk about.
You talk about your pets, you talk about the food, you talk
about all these things.
Talk about your technological lives and come up with a
family philosophy.
The kids love being part of forming a new philosophy, I
have found, in my family, and having a say.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Yeah, and kids really get engaged in this.
I worked recently with a middle school up at Sidwell,
and they couldn't stop talking about the technology.
And I said-- because I just did a parents' evening there
too-- and I said, well, what advice would you give me to
give to your parents about your younger brothers and
sisters because I'm sure you guys are fine?
And they just flooded out with all sorts of advice.
But one boy said to me, I wish my mom would go to computer
camp in the summer because she doesn't even know how to
switch the machine on and off.
And when you've got parents at that kind of technological
disadvantage dealing with kids who are way, way out ahead,
it's a struggle.
WILLIAM POWERS: But I also have kids coming to my events
at bookstores, in particular, who are buying the book--
teenagers and 20-somethings--
for their parents who they think are too connected.
The opposite.
WILLIAM POWERS: And I am finding that the 20-somethings
and 30-somethings are more conscious about the tools than
the baby boomers, who are kind of in a little bit of a fog
and feeling insecure about digital tools because they
didn't grow up with them, and so trying to become a little
bit the techno-hipster.
The young people don't feel that way.
STEPHEN BALKAM: You're embarrassing me, actually.
If you're 18 it's not hip to be digital,
digital's just the world.
I love that sophistication, actually, of the younger
people because you can go right to it with them and talk
to them about these questions.
They don't want to live their whole life on screen, but they
realize there's a lot of great stuff to be had
there at the same time.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So I suggest to the parents that they
should go on computer camp in the summer and send their kids
to conversation camp,
There you go.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Eye contact, remember eye contact?
WILLIAM POWERS: Eye contact camp.
STEPHEN BALKAM: I used to remember that.
Well we're going to come to your questions.
We've got some microphones in the back here.
So if you feel the need, an urge just--
WILLIAM POWERS: Please, are there any questions?
I'd love to--
STEPHEN BALKAM: Yeah, go ahead.
You may want to-- boy, you have to be tall--
AUDIENCE: Too short.
Tell us what are some kinds of things your family has done on
your technological Sabbath.
Because I do the same.
I turn off on Sundays but I get bored.
I just, like you, I struggle.
And what have you done to fill that time that's creative, and
redemptive, and rejuvenating?
WILLIAM POWERS: How deep into it are you in terms of how
long have you been doing it?
AUDIENCE: A couple years, like you.
WILLIAM POWERS: A couple years.
We kind of have a philosophy that says we don't do anything
in particular so that it's not this artificial, oh, it's
internet Sabbath now, now we're going to go have a
campfire in the backyard.
We don't have anything like that.
We view it as let's just see what happens each weekend.
In fact we don't even say that anymore.
That's our normal thing of how we have a weekend.
That one aspect is removed and so we wind up naturally
gravitating towards things that we now associate with
that kind of a weekend.
So for example, my son has this fort that he's been
working on in the back yard, which I think he's dedicated a
lot more time to because he has these weekends where a
screen is not a draw.
And he does a thing with his friends.
I've seen him do this, where the friend will come over to
play and he'll convince the friend that if the friend
leaves his phone inside of our house along with my son's
phone they'll be doing something dangerous because
the parents won't be able to find them out in the back.
My son really believes in that, which is a true strategy
for actually growing up a little bit and cutting the
cord, which for some reason a lot of kids today it doesn't
occur to them that that's a really kind of a wild and
crazy thing to do.
And I think one of the reasons my son learned that is
precisely because he's been doing this since he
was eight or nine.
And so, he's got that that he does.
He's much more focused on his saxophone, which he's been
learning for a while, on the weekends because he's kind of
looking for something to do.
And there it is lying there.
And he does love playing it, so he picks it up.
We do more walks.
We do more time outside even in the winter.
In this brutal, windy place that I live we do take walks
because it's the weekend and we don't have this other thing
to distract us.
We wind up socializing with the neighbors more.
But these things all happen by happenstance, and it doesn't
wind up being a plan.
I would also note that there have been times when we've had
to make an exception.
Because we have a rule that if there's something really
urgent, work-related or some other reason that we have to--
once there was a hurricane bearing down on our town and
we felt like we should probably check the digital
weather report, and so forth--
we can go and check.
But what's interesting is we've now reached the point
where as soon as we check we all kind of wanted to go back
off again because it's become a sacred time.
I should admit my wife and I are little more eager to have
it go off again than he is.
But he even he recognizes that this is a kind of time we
spend together that is different and that has a lot
going for it.
And that winds up feeding over into the rest of life.
It helps you-- even on a Wednesday I feel like I have
better attention as a reader of a book in the middle of the
week because three days earlier I had some time when I
wasn't all hopping around with my clicker,
if that makes sense.
So I didn't really give you any concrete ideas, but we
just kind of let it happen.
STEPHEN BALKAM: I feel like we're in a revivalist meeting.
Anybody else want to testify?
Are there questions?
STEPHEN BALKAM: Well, yeah go ahead, jump to the--
If you wouldn't mind, maybe just say who you are and where
you're from if you don't feel--
NICOLE GRAZIOSI: Nicole Graziosi with National
Organizations for Youth Safety, but this isn't exactly
a safety question.
Can you apply these techniques to the working day?
Personally I find that I can't even take a lunch break
without having my phone or doing some type of work.
And also just having my emails manage me and
not manage my emails.
I can't even get to my projects because I'm just
overwhelmed with the amount of emails I have.
I have that too.
The Ben Franklin chapter--
I didn't say this in my remarks about Franklin-- but
it's really about the workplace.
And Franklin's idea of positive rituals is something
that some really forward thinking companies are
starting to apply because they're realizing that
over-connected employees are not creative employees, or
focused employees, or efficient employees.
So these tools that are supposed to be tools of
productivity in a lot of places are becoming tools of
unproductivity because people are in a fog from clicking and
Twittering and all these things, and never settling
down into one task at a time.
So I think it has to, in some ways, come from above in terms
of the people who are running a shop.
Intel has been very forward thinking about this and doing
experiments to help people have quiet
time during the day.
Certain days of the week that are less connected and so
forth, urging people--
They had one experiment they did-- this one wasn't very
successful-- but they did one where they had a 48-hour rule
for email where any email you could wait up to 48 hours
before answering it.
And if you waited that long it was OK, you couldn't be
punished for taking that long, which is, in our world, a very
radical thing to try.
But they tried it.
And I just think companies need to try experiments just
like families do and recognize that people are feeling what
you're feeling.
Because it's bad for the team.
On a number of different levels it's bad for morale,
it's bad for thinking creatively, for coming up with
those ideas that actually could change not only your job
and the work you're doing but the fortune of the whole
If you never get those moments when you have that inspiration
that's yours and only yours, you know, that's the whole
point of trying to be a leader and trying to thrive as an
So I think those things that are happening at those cutting
edge firms, this is the leading edge of change in
business in terms of thriving in a digital world.
And you're going to see a lot more of it because what we're
all feeling in our personal lives, in some ways, is an
even bigger deal in the work world because so much of the
work world runs now digitally.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And I'd like to respond as well because I
ended up writing a review in the
Huffington Post of the book.
And it came about because I was waiting in line at a
actually just a block from here--
and I felt my iPhone vibrate because every time an email
comes in, a text comes in--
so I reached down to get it but it isn't there.
I had a phantom phone sensation which, I thought, I
bet if I Googled phantom phone sen-- and you know what?
You get hundreds of responses.
It's now a medically acceptable diagnosis.
And it wasn't the first time, and this was about the second
or the third time.
And it even happens when I hear another phone or--
a lot of nods going on here.
People are reaching for their phones when they hear somebody
else's phone.
Anyway, when I got back to the office with my cappuccino I
put it down and I realized that there was my iPhone and
there was my iPad, and there was my computer.
And all three were buzzing, and burping, and chirping.
And every time anything--
Twitter came through--
everything was giving me both visual and audible alerts.
So what I did was I created my own little Walden zone.
I switched every alert off apart from the ring-- which is
an old fashioned telephone ring--
on my iPhone.
That's the one thing I will-- you know,
someone's calling me--
And very few people call anymore, by the way.
WILLIAM POWERS: So when a new tweet comes in you don't hear
it but it still comes in.
You're still on Twitter.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Oh, I'm still on Twitter but what I do is I
wait to go on my time.
I'll actually go--
it probably drives my staff crazy that I don't respond in
the 90 seconds that I used to respond.
But in other words, I will wait until I have finished.
I am trying to mono-task, which is extremely hard to do.
And I see that with my daughter too.
She's 14.
She had a science project the other day.
It took her four hours.
Well it was Neanderthals.
I mean, Neanderthals are tough to work out
and to write about.
But I then discovered, of course, that she'd had
Facebook opened in a small little panel there.
And the Facebook panel gives you a little alert whenever
there's an update, of which there is very frequently on my
daughter's Facebook.
The starting point is to be conscious of this,
to be aware of this.
And then do what you need to do.
What works for you.
STEPHEN BALKAM: But you're not a Luddite, right?
You're not suggesting we should unplug as--
I love the tools, but if you're a prisoner of them
you're not getting the most out of them.
I'm on Twitter.
I'm using all these--
I did a Facebook update last night that said, Lady Gaga's
in a bus outside my hotel window.
WILLIAM POWERS: What does it mean, you know?
That might have been--
STEPHEN BALKAM: She's here to see you, obviously.
WILLIAM POWERS: That one might have been very frivolous.
It was what moved me at the time.

We're all having fun, and enjoying these tools, and
being creative, and that's the way it should be.
But the message of the book-- and not
everybody needs this message.
Some people have been thoughtful about
them from the beginning.
But a lot of people like me were not and were mindlessly
stumbling through this new age when we should be doing
fantastic things with it.
I wrote this book in an office where I don't have internet.
I rented an office in the village near our house because
I had to get away from it to actually have
these sustained thoughts.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And there's a new piece of free software
called Anti-Social.
Anybody come across Anti-Social?
So it was developed by a writer, and basically what it
does is it switches off all of the social networking sites
for two hours and then it comes back on again.
Now if you have to go to Facebook or to Myspace you
actually have to completely reboot the computer.
Which you then realize, how dumb is that, you know, I
should resist. Mike, did you have a question?
MIKE NELSON: Yeah, I had a quick question.
Mike Nelson, I'm a professor of Internet Studies at
Georgetown, and I've been accused of being a
I'm actually a cyberoptimist. But I'd like to ask whether
you've found any sites that actually can give you a small
bit of an internet Sabbath in the middle of the day?
I'm thinking of
WILLIAM POWERS: Oh yeah, I love the do nothing.
MIKE NELSON: And are there other sites like this?
I think there is a need here, and the internet is very good
at meeting needs.
And I think we're in a growth period of this idea like that
two-minute experiment.
I don't know if you all saw it but it was, can you do nothing
for two minutes?
And it was staring at waves coming in on the beach.
And I failed the first time.
I mean, I reached out for the clicker about 30 seconds in
without even realizing I'd done it.
And then it came on the screen, fail.
Or it might have said epic failure, and I can't remember.
But there's a bunch of them.
There's a new one that I just discovered last week.
Have you seen this one, 750 words?
This is a site that a guy came up-- who's a writer--
and he realized that if he started his day each day
writing 750 words, sustained, just that one thing, that it
affected his day positively for the rest of the day.
He'd started off focused.
So he put up a site where anybody can go.
And actually, I think you create your own space on the
site, where you can go any time of the day-- but he urges
people to do it in the morning, first
thing in the morning--
sit down, and write any 750 words you want.
And he claims that it has a kind of a semi-magical effect
on your consciousness because you've started the day that
way rather than starting the day with the iPhone and all
those things in there kind of making you
feel busy right off.
You start with something that's relatively sustained,
and calm, and putting words together and, logic.
And I love that idea.
And I learned about it because one of the people I follow on
Twitter tweeted about it and said, I tried this, it works,
exclamation point.
So I went to it.
And I haven't actually tried it yet, but I read his
rationale and I thought, I am so thrilled people are
thinking about things like this because
this is what we need.
This is like Gutenberg thinking, wait a minute
there's a better way to be in that crowd and try to get to
that magic stuff.
That's what we're trying to do, get to the magic stuff.
And I like to think that, in a way, I feel like I'm a utopian
too in that I feel like there is a great optimistic future
we can build if we're just thoughtful about it.
And it's just a matter of ideas like this.
MIKE NELSON: Can you imagine anything else that we should
be doing online to give us a little escape?
WILLIAM POWERS: You mean little, creative ideas that
I've come up with?
You know, I have ideas flitting across my mind but
none of them are as good as things that people like that
guy's thing--
I mean that's a really wonderful, original idea.
I've thought about a site where people could go and
write about--
share ideas about the Sabbath.
Like come back on a Monday and say we did this thing on the
weekend or I took Thursday's off, or whatever, and here's
what it was like for me.
But then I thought the downside of that is that it's
another destination to add to your day.
So is 750 words, but in this case I think it would be
people saying online what is really common sense that we
know already, and so not worth doing a whole site about.
But something like 750 words or two minutes, that's a whole
new concept somebody's coming up with that
I really just love.
MIKE NELSON: Have you read Mudhouse Sabbath?
What is that?
MIKE NELSON: It's a religious book about an Episcopalian
priest who talks about some of the same things that you're
talking about.
MIKE NELSON: The other part of the Sabbath, though, is to
serve others and build the community.
[INTERPOSING VOICES] think interesting to build that into
this whole concept.
WILLIAM POWERS: I think this contributes to that.
And I didn't realize when I was writing this book--
Stephen brought this up today when we were talking--
I didn't realize that I was writing a kind
of a spiritual book.
I talk a lot about the inner life and all these things
because I'm not a religious person per say.
I was thinking maybe I'm not a spiritual person, but one of
the groups that really I hear from every day-- somewhere,
someone emails me or blogs about this-- is the whole
world of spiritual communities and spiritual people.
Because, of course, that's what the inner life is.
And that's what I'm urging people to do.
One of the words I use in the book a lot is depth.
Live more deeply.
Go in-depth in your life.
And that's a spiritual concept.
MIKE NELSON: Thank you for the book.
MIKE NELSON: It was very, very interesting.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you for the question.
STEPHEN BALKAM: We've got someone-- yeah?
Michael Kaiser, National Cyber Security Alliance.
So I'm fascinated because you're taking this very long
view, right, of all this.
And it makes me think about, is there an evolutionary
component here?
In other words, is the introduction of technology
come in and by human nature we consume it, right?
We consume it and consume it, a little bit like lemmings,
until we find a balance.
And that that's actually part of the evolutionary process
that allows us to bring technology into our world in
the first place.
And so there's this human nature part that say, ooh, I
like it, I need it, I want it, I'm going to use it more, and
more, more, more, more, more, more.
And all of a sudden, well then, we find a place.
We don't all sit in our cars and drive 24 hours a day.
It's cool and, I'm sure, when people first got them they
probably did some of that--
WILLIAM POWERS: They did that.
AUDIENCE: --and they find a way-- who knows what the time
frame is here--
to ultimately incorporate it for the good that it can
bring, right?
That is the ultimate end and it happens evolutionarily.
WILLIAM POWERS: I think you're right.
It happened with television, if you think about it.
I say this in the book.
I think we figured out television.
There were these people running
around who are saying--
they're still running around-- vast wasteland, you know?
Aspects of television are wonderful today
if you use it wisely.
And we use it as a
togetherness tool in the house.
We are allowed to watch television together on the
Sabbath weekends because it's a different thing for us.
It's not pulling us apart.
We really gather for it.
So it's about, very much--
in the beginning of television people were saying they were
mesmerized, and they were in a trance, and we were becoming
zombies, and all this thing.
Well, didn't happen.
And I think we're in that phase now.
It's different.
The conversation today seems to me more about the burden of
too much stuff, and wanting to throw your iPhone out the
window, and all those things.
There's a, I think unfortunate, feeling of really
rejecting the tools.
But I understand why.
Because people feel they're becoming slaves to them.
And I think that just all goes back to having to rethink the
way we're using them.
And that goes to organizations as well as individuals.
Wait a minute.
Is it a good thing for these people to be toggling all day
between these 25 different tasks?
Is that getting us, as an organization, to the place we
want to go?
And that's a kind of evolution where were thinking together
more smartly as time goes on.
And we'll look back someday--
we're already looking back and laughing at the '90s and
certain aspects of the stuff we thought was great back then
that really looks kind of really stupid now.
You know, the early days of the web things we were all
excited about weren't--
chat room?--
we've moved on to things that are in a way, I think, more
sophisticated than that.
I was talking to somebody today about the early days of
the telephone.
In the 19th century it was marketed in Europe as a way,
exclusively, as a way of listening to
opera from your home.
One way.
Listening to opera.
No, it hadn't occurred to them, wait, this might be
better used just for very intimate conversation.
It took a while to get to that place.
So I think you're exactly right.
I think we have time for one more question.
JON SHALOWITZ: I'll make it quick.
Jon Shalowitz from Nominum.
So Bill, is the digital dependency that you're talking
about primarily a US phenomenon?
I believe on your book tour you've been out on the road,
across the pond, and down to Australia.
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, no it's not.
JON SHALOWITZ: Did you see other countries dealing with
this problem?
WILLIAM POWERS: it's everywhere.
The more connected a society is-- and we are not the most
connected society, not even close--
the more connected a society is the more they feel this.
I have a humorous little fact I cite in the book, which is
the international cell phone throwing competition, which
now happens annually in some place in Europe.
It was invented in Finland, which, no coincidence, always
ranks, I believe, in the top three or four most connected
societies on earth.
South Korea--
these are places where people are really feeling it really,
really intensely.
The book hasn't come out in most foreign countries so far
because it had to be translated for most of the
ones where the rights have been bought.
But the rights have been bought in societies that are
very much on the fast track.
The rights have been bought in China, so it's
going to come out there.
You can almost track where people are hyper-connected and
looking for a new answer.
And so that's encouraging that we're not alone and we've
reached a point where even as the world is still getting
connected-- and there are, as you know, swaths of the world
that are really still very lightly connected.
We're trying to figure it out, and we're
looking for answers already.
Shakespeare's time, when they were struggling with info
overload from print, was over 100 years after the invention
of the printing press.
And they still hadn't gotten it under control in their
heads and figured out how to live.
And I just think we shouldn't take a century and a half to
make sense of this.
We can do it today.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you Jon.
STEPHEN BALKAM: And given that here we are in DC, you used to
work on the Hill.
There are some public policy dimensions to all this too.
I think I've heard you talk about the $1 trillion in loss
of productivity.
One study estimated that there's an annual $1 trillion
dollar loss in productivity in the American economy due to,
basically, over-connected workers, people who are in
this kind of mental-fog distraction from having too
much information flowing over them all day.
It's a lot of money.
And just as we're trying to connect unserved and
undeserved communities--
the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program--
we've got to remain mindful of your main concerns.
WILLIAM POWERS: We do need to connect people who are
disconnected because that's not a good thing.
But at the same time we shouldn't assume that the more
connected you are, 24/7, the better because
it's just not true.
So I'm walking away with two words in my head.
STEPHEN BALKAM: --and balance.
WILLIAM POWERS: And balance, there you go.
WILLIAM POWERS: Yes, that's it.
STEPHEN BALKAM: So the church of--
WILLIAM POWERS: Of Hamlet's BlackBerry?
STEPHEN BALKAM: That's the two mottos.
So please, please join me in thanking Bill Powers.
Thank you.
Thank you for coming.
ALAN DAVIDSON: And I would just say, on behalf of the
folks here at Google, first of all, for those of you in the
audience, I hope that your own path through the digital age
will include partaking in some of the really excellent
macaroni and cheese truffles in the back of the room, and
continuing the conversation.
And yes, that was terrific.
So please, please do join me in thanking both William
Powers and Stephen Balkam for being Here today.