How ‘Hamlet’s BlackBerry’ & ‘Think Quarterly’ show why we should stop toggling between screens and stretch our minds
Google, the company that helped create our culture of constantly clicking, has unveiled Think Quarterly, a new magazine aimed at creating "breathing space in a busy world."
Too bad we didn't know about this last week. If any group needed to rein in their digital connectedness, it was the 19,000 attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive festival.
For five days, we streamed from one nerdy panel to another, up and down escalators, never looking up from our smartphones. At night we went from party to bar, toggling between our companions, Twitter and group texting services.
The challenge at an event like South by Southwest is that you spend all your time packing new ideas into your head and not enough time processing them. William Powers, author of “Hamlet's BlackBerry,” would have told all those people to stop running around and staring at screens, and instead create some mental space to unpack everything they had seen and heard.
In fact, Powers did say this in a session called “Hamlet's BlackBerry: Liberate Yourself from Digital Addiction” — but there were more empty seats than listeners. That wasn't surprising; his central thesis runs counter to the culture at South by Southwest.
“I think,” he said, “we're sacrificing depth in our lives, depth in our relationships, depth in our thinking, depth in our feeling, depth in the work we're doing, if we never step aside from our screens …. never looking up to interact with the world around us.”
We've become digital maximalists
Perhaps the technophiles at SXSW expected an anti-technology rant. Instead, Powers praised the “miraculous, fantastic” devices that enable us to connect and consume in ways only imaginable 20 years ago.
Yet simply because those devices enable us to be connected every moment of the day, he said, doesn't mean that we should be. We've become adherents of “digital maximalism” – that more is necessarily better – without considering the impact on our lives and asking if there is another way.
Guy Laurence, CEO of Vodaphone UK, discusses this in Think Quarterly from a corporate perspective. At one time, the key challenge for companies was getting access to data; now, it's managing too much of it. “We were brought up to believe more data was good, and that’s no longer true," he said.
On a personal level, Powers said, “I feel like the smartphone is becoming the new sweatshop. We're prisoners of this bizarre factory we built ourselves, and we don't want to step out of it."
What I found fascinating in Powers' talk was that this problem was not created by the zeros and ones behind those screens. Socrates, according to Powers, was addicted to the conversation. In “Phaedrus,” Socrates says he never takes walks in the countryside; he can't bear to miss the action in Athens.
Centuries before we coined the word “oversharing,” Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca bemoaned how some people communicated the most intimate details of their lives to anyone who would listen. “Love of bustle is not industry; it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind,” he wrote.
The technology that spurred all that communication, Powers said, was the written alphabet.
“You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”
What digital place is your Athens? What bustling activity pursues your hunted mind? Has a mound of postal dispatches muffled your own voice?
Creating digital white space
Thoreau, Powers noted, built his cabin a short walk away from the village of Concord, Mass. “He was trying to strike a balance. He was trying not to become a prisoner of his connected life.”
The key, Powers, said, is to create gaps between these periods of connectedness. Just as white space on a page draws attention to what is most visually important, digital white space can help us focus on those ideas that take some time to formulate.
Our devices can play a role in making those associations, but only if we use them in the right way. Powers described how he called his mom one day to say he was on his way to her house. Hearing her voice and seeing her photo on his cell phone triggered a flood of memories, “this moment of pure 'mom-ness.'”
“I was only able to have that moment because I put the phone away,” he said. “I didn't move on to another digital task.”
Powers doesn't ask that we give up our digital devices; he just wants them to work for us, rather than the other way around. On our smartphones, why must the fire hose of connectivity be open all the way, all the time? Why can't we easily set times of day in which we want only certain types of connections? No email after 7 p.m. No texts. No direct messages on Twitter.
It's possible to change these settings manually, but at least on my iPhone, I would have to do it piecemeal, if they can be managed at all.
And when we sit down at our computers, shouldn't we be able to specify how connected we want to be?
The next revolution, Powers predicted, will be devices that enable you to “design your own digital life.” Perhaps the iPad, which favors one activity at a time, is the first step in this direction.
Write what you don't know
Unplugging is particularly tough for people who work in online media – those who respond to breaking news, follow discussion blogs and on Twitter, and operate in a never-ending, read-react cycle.
Even the hyperconnected attendees at SXSW acknowledged the problem. The day before Powers' talk, people packed a room to hear The New York Times' David Carr and several others in media discuss the quandary of being so busy with Twitter, RSS readers and email that they never get their work done.
"Lately I've been so busy promoting what I do,” Carr lamented, “that I don't do what I do."
There are ways to shut it all out. You can turn off your Gmail notifier, close Twitter and minimize your email window. (I have started to do all of these things when I start writing.) If you really can't tear yourself away, there are tools that will yank down the shade on your window to the Web.
Carr suggested that people leave fact-checking to the end of the writing process so they don't go online and get off track. “Get your narrative up and running, and then check your links.”
But the real challenge, the one that Powers addresses, isn't doing; it's thinking. It's taking the time to figure out what you think. In Carr's panel, Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates alluded to this challenge when he said that one side effect of blogging is that he thinks fewer deep thoughts.
“You have to go to a place of depth,” Powers said, “and make new associations that I think it's harder to make when you're constantly attending to the screen.”
This reminded me of something that Chip Scanlan, my writing and reporting teacher at Poynter 14 years ago, said about how writing can be a process of discovery. Evoking longtime writing coach Donald Murray, Scanlan told us, “Write what you don't know.”
Back then, Scanlan encouraged us to write daily in a "day book"; of course, few of us carry a notebook around anymore. Yet the concept has been taken online and even improved in the website 750 Words, which has the tagline, "Private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily."
750 Words gives you a private place to write, judges how focused you are by tracking your typing speed and breaks, scores you based on how often and how much you write, and even does basic sentiment analysis to tell you how you're feeling.
“The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. ...
You can't just fart out 3 pages without running into your subconscious a little bit... 750 words takes a bit of effort, and it never fails to get me typing things that I have wanted to articulate without realizing it. And that's the point.”
The deep Web
Google's launch of Think Quarterly seems to show that the company is exploring a slower, more thoughtful side of the Web. The introduction to the magazine reads:
"SPEED. At Google, we often think that speed is the forgotten 'killer application' – the ingredient that can differentiate winners from the rest. We know that the faster we deliver results, the more useful people find our service.
"But in a world of accelerating change, we all need time to reflect. Think Quarterly is a breathing space in a busy world. It's a place to take time out and consider what's happening and why it matters."
There are other signs of this countermovement. Amazon created the Kindle Singles store, showing that the online super-retailer believes there is a market for texts longer than a magazine piece, but shorter than a book. Longform.org and @Longreads highlight in-depth journalism that you shouldn't miss. Instapaper and Read It Later enable people to save those stories and read them when they have time.
We often talk of time — mostly, how little there is. But the next time your phone buzzes urgently and you glance down at the screen, think about how small that space is.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Socrates talked about his affinity for the action in Athens in "Phaedo," but it was actually "Phaedrus."