A wave far from shore

by Eric Ginsburg

Bill Powers is the kind of person who’s so present in a conversation — even on the phone — that it’s easy to start feeling like I know him. He’s perceptive and insightful but remains incredibly relatable and humble. I’m reluctant to let him off the phone, even after an hour and a half, because his thoughtfulness and patience seem like endangered species in our society.

These traits aren’t surprising for someone who wrote a book called Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. The book focuses on over-connectedness and rampant “screen” addiction, outlining how historical philosophers — and Powers’ family — dealt with conflicting pressures to be outward and connected with the deep need to go inward.

It’s not that I expected less from someone like him, a former Washington Post reporter, but that he’s one of a small number of people I can remember interacting with that seemed to have a clear head and give me their undivided attention. That clarity is apparent in his book, and not just to me — it’s a New York Times bestseller.

I hadn’t heard of Powers’ book until recently though it came out three years ago, but a similarly themed article made a strong impression in the circles I run in last year. Tim Kreider’s piece for The New York Times, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” speaks to the fundamental alienation many of us feel.

“Almost everyone I know is busy,” he writes.

“They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work…. The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”

This superfluous busyness, aided tremendously by our collective screen addiction that Powers helped illuminate, is really like a sickness, but even after reading and wholeheartedly agreeing with Kreider and Powers’ cautionary tales, it’s all too easy to slip back into the same habits.

“In letting screens run my life, I discount the rest of my existence, effectively renouncing my own wholeness,” he writes towards the end of Hamlet’s Blackberry. “This problem is not just individual and private; it’s afflicting all our collective endeavors, in business, schools, and government and at every level of society. We’re living less and giving less, and the world is the worse for it.”

To some extent, public discourse is significantly more aware of these issues than just a few years ago. Still, Powers said, it’s “a wave far, far from shore” but he is proud to be a part of that rethinking process.

It seems impossible to challenge Powers’ core argument that we are overly reliant on screens. Even as I read his book my phone would buzz in my pocket. Craving more time outdoors I recently started walking on a path by Lake Brandt, reflecting later that I shouldn’t have brought the electronic ball-and-chain in my pocket, texting briefly and snapping a few photos of the lake and foliage.

I can feel my brain wandering to my e-mail inbox as I type. Online readers may have already clicked between this column and their Facebook feeds open in another window. Those who are less distracted likely feel the societal impulse towards digital life and unnecessary busyness or can at least see it modeled constantly around them.

It’s ridiculous and absurd, but even as we criticize the habit in others — I like to complain about a friend who aimlessly trolls the internet on his phone while we’re out to eat together — we commit the crimes ourselves.

Powers isn’t a Luddite, and fortunately his book offers several practical solutions. Among them is Ben Franklin’s approach to reconceptualizing what we’re doing when we cut out harmful activities or overuse.

“Franklin was saying that in order for self-denial to work, you have to reason it out first in your own mind,” Powers writes. “You have to see that there is more to be gained by resisting the impulse than giving in. Once you truly believe this, it’s all downhill. What previously seemed a dreary, priggish way to live — denying oneself pleasure — suddenly becomes positive and even hedonistic.”

Powers and his family practiced this approach while implementing offline weekends, unplugging the internet. Rather than thinking about it negatively, they embraced the quiet time and break in busyness. For five years, they observed the “digital Sabbath,” forming new habits and later modifying their practice slightly to fit their needs.

Powers’ points aren’t exactly revolutionary; after all, he cites people like Socrates and Shakespeare. Others have made similar points too, including a poster in my office’s bathroom.

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” the Desiderata from 1692 reads. “In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.”

His family’s detox and the examples in his book provided somewhat of a blueprint to living that fuller life that we crave. Yet after talking to Powers, my reverence for his character will do more to inspire me to rethink my habits than anything else. In trying to emulate him, maybe my desire to eschew unnecessary busyness and clutter stands a chance. !