Why so automatic, AI?

I’ve had the pleasure of writing two essays for Traffic, a new magazine about the media. The first, entitled AI Blues, is about an experiment I conducted after my favorite DJ, jazz savant Bob Parlocha, died and I tried to create an algorithmic simulacrum of his musical sensibility.

An outgrowth of conversations I had with colleagues at the MIT Media Lab, the piece questions the widespread assumption that the more automatic a technology is — and the less human input it requires — the better. I touch on the work of J. C. R. Licklider, a computer science pioneer of the mid-20th century who envisioned a future in which machines and humans collaborate through a “productive and thriving partnership” that draws on the respective, very different strengths of each.

It’s a dream that we have yet to realize. Given current concerns about the future of AI, it seems due for a revival.

You can read the piece here.

Hat tip to Traffic editors Patrick Appel and Rob Levine, collaborators in the best sense of the word.

January 21st, 2018|

Hamlet’s BB Arrives in London

Stacks, The London Library

Hamlet’s BlackBerry just came out in the UK, from Scribe Publications. (I never expected this book would have such a long life, or be published in so many countries and languages.) And the London-based Financial Times has a piece that nicely captures the essence of my message.

Writer Maija Palmer includes a quotation that appears in my Gutenberg chapter. It’s a personal favorite I often use in my talks, a 15th-century scholar denouncing the hot new technology of his day, printed books. In the decades immediately after the invention of the movable-type printing press, some believed mass-produced books were a disaster and a menace.

Wow, were they ever wrong.

My point is that fear and loathing of the new device is a common feature of tech revolutions, and just as dumb as mindless utopianism. Or dumber. At least the utopians are optimistic. I prefer the sunny side of the street.

Here’s an excerpt from the FT piece:

Then there is the growing number of guidebooks and “digital detox” diets to help people kick the plugged-in habit. One such book – ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ by William Powers – was recently published in the UK, following up on its publication in the US three years ago. Its arguments about the need to take back control are even more urgently needed today.

Powers’s solution is simple: we must create places and times in our lives where technology can be switched off.

It is not that all new technology is bad, per se. People have always found adjusting to new communication technologies difficult. Socrates was anxious about the move from a purely oral tradition to writing on scrolls. After Gutenberg kicked off the age of the printed book in the mid-1400s, the Italian scholar Niccolò Perotti wrote:

“Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.”

Powers points out that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have had the 16th-century version of a BlackBerry. No self-respecting Renaissance nobleman was without his “table book”, a pocket-sized almanac of plaster-coated pages written on with a stylus and erased with a sponge. It was useful for jotting down appointments, lists, information and thoughts.

Powers maintains that new technologies are life-enhancing. Gutenberg not only opened up knowledge for greater numbers of people, but allowed them the novel experience of reading silently to themselves. When books were more scarce, reading was mostly aloud and to a group. Similarly, our digital connections are useful, entertaining and informative: it is immoderate use that turns them toxic.

But how can one bear to cut the electric umbilical cord? Powers experimented with disabling the family’s internet router at weekends. Though his family initially missed their gaming sites and email, they grew to enjoy the interruption-free family time. Powers says he returned to the frenetic digital life in a calmer state of mind each Monday, and experienced an increase in productivity.

There are other examples of people who thrive without a constant digital connection. Bill Gross, chief investment officer of Pimco, is famous for not having a cellphone. Writer Paul Miller took a year’s break from the internet and said he found himself more focused and with more free time than ever in his adult life. Even Stephen Fry, one of the UK’s most prolific microbloggers, takes regular holidays from Twitter.

August 29th, 2013|

Young & Mischievous

Me chatting with students at Washington & Lee University (photo by Claudette Artwick)

So here I am talking recently to a journalism class at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. In 2010 when Hamlet’s BlackBerry first came out, I met Claudette Artwick, a W & L professor of journalism and mass communication, on Twitter. She invited me to speak to her class via Skype and it’s become an annual thing.

I do a lot of school talks, to audiences of all sizes. When I was writing the book, some older friends advised me that, while people over the age of 40 might be interested in my rethink of the tech revolution, younger people would be TOTALLY against it. They just want to live their whole lives on and through the screen, these great experts-on-youth warned.

They were so wrong. People under 30 have been, by far, the most open to my message. Why? Because older people are often insecure about the new gadgets and fearful of questioning them – lest they come off as, well, old. But young people are totally comfortable with everything digital, because they grew up with it. And they have no worries about seeming old, because they aren’t. So they’re happy to critique the assumptions of the revolution, particularly the one I call Digital Maximalism: the more connected you are, the better.

If your screen life isn’t making you happy, change it. Take control. Define your own existence. Get away from the digital crowd, with all its demands and conformist tendencies. Free your mind. Later, when you return to Twitter or Facebook or whatever you like to do online, you’ll have more to bring to the conversation. Because you’ve been elsewhere having other kinds of experiences.

Are they changing again?

When I say these things to younger audiences, I get smiles, nodding heads, eyes lighting up. Not everyone is enthusiastic, for sure. But there are many more mischievous heretics among the digital natives than my Baby Boomer friends ever imagined. When you think about it, this fits. Boomers created the digital world and, in a way, they’re defending their own turf. But a 20-year-old has no need to accept the established rules of that turf, other than pleasing the elders – and how boring is that?

Why am I telling you this? Because I haven’t posted here in quite a while, and lately I’ve noticed something. It’s a sort of awakening, a spreading realization that, though the new connectedness is fantastic, the 24/7 always-on approach is no way to live. To get the most out of your connected existence, you have to master the art of disconnecting.

It’s happening in the more innovative pockets of the tech community, where I recently spent some time working on a project (Nick Bilton of the NYT just noted the same shift), and among the young.

Another friend I met on Twitter, tech entrepreneur Kevin King, saw the Washington & Lee photo and tweeted at me: “great pic from W&L. In a recent trip to Charlottesville, I was thrilled to see how many students were *not* on their phones!”

“Yeah,” I replied, “change is in the air. Not just among young people but, being young, they are the most alive to it.”

The world is always renewing itself. And the young show us the way.

May 22nd, 2013|

Computer Says “You’re Fired”

Note: A few days after posting this, I learned that the unnamed “Dutch technology professor” mentioned in the first paragraph died on October 8, 2011. Kees Overbeeke was a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and just 59 years old. Three years ago, after giving a speech in Amsterdam, I spent the better part of an afternoon in Eindhoven with Kees and his students. An inspiring thinker and teacher, he gave me a whole new perspective on design (his specialty), technology and people. On the memorial page put up by his colleagues, the photo captures the mix of impish intelligence and personal modesty that made him unforgettable. I dedicate this post to Kees.

One of the pithiest pop-culture commentaries on digital life is “Computer Says No,” a series of British TV sketches about a rude customer-service rep who takes all her orders from her screen. I first heard about it several years ago from a Dutch technology professor who viewed it as a metaphor for all the ways our gadgets can dehumanize us, if we’re not careful.

More recently, I learned from my 14-year-old son that “Computer Says No” has a following among his middle-school classmates, who not only watch the videos but find all kinds of uses for the refrain. Screen frozen? Can’t get a signal on your smartphone? Just blurt out “Computer says no” in a broad English accent and you feel instantly better. I’ve tried it and it works.

If technology does indeed pose a threat to our happiness, this is how we’ve been trained to think about it – our machines will rob us of our humanity. We’ve been living with machines for a very long time, and that hasn’t happened yet (though sometimes, after an intense day at the screen, I climb into bed feeling quite a bit less human than I was at sunrise). However, in recent years, our machines have been removing something extremely valuable from society: jobs. Yet we haven’t been talking about this very much. After all, computers are popularly viewed as engines of prosperity, creators of jobs, tools for making all kinds of businesses more profitable.

In their new e-book, Race Against The Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of MIT, argue that we need to pay a lot more attention to the rising competence of technology in the workplace. Robots and other kinds of digital “employees” have already made huge inroads into the labor market, and as they grow ever more sophisticated, the trend is only going to accelerate.

Because machines increase productivity and growth, as they’ve been doing for many years, it might seem paradoxical to claim they’re causing economic damage. Yet the authors make a compelling case that this is precisely what’s been happening: “While digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”

I met McAfee last year when we were on a panel together at the Boston Book Festival, along with Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows. After the festival, Andy was headed to Madrid and I recommended that he go for a drink at that city’s breathtaking Palace Hotel. He not only took me up on the tip, but while imbibing at the Palace, used his phone to send me a photo of the place. It was one of those nice interpersonal moments when you’re reminded all over again that the world has been pulled together in a completely new way, and our excellent digital adventure has only begun.

Andy and I have since become friends, and this past summer, when he told me that he and Brynjolfsson were working on a book about technology’s threat to the human labor market, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Sure, there will be displacements, but isn’t that a normal part of any huge technological shift? If we’re shooting text and images across the world at unheard of speeds, surely we can figure out how to keep ourselves in the picture, and the economy humming.

I still believe that, as do the authors, both self-professed tech optimists. But by the time I was halfway through their book, I was convinced that something insidious and significant has been happening beneath the surface of the economy and, in the short term, the ride could get a lot bumpier. In one dramatic harbinger of the labor future, a Chinese electronics manufacturer recently announced that it’s buying one million robots over the next three years to replace a large chunk of its workforce.

Once upon a time, when the economy grew thanks to technological advancements and the efficiencies they produce, the benefits were widely shared. Today, for several different reasons that the authors incisively lay out, the gains are accruing to an ever-smaller slice of the population – you guessed it, the super-wealthy. Thus, even though we’re all enjoying our iPads and Androids, in the larger economic sense, this “revolution” is making the rich a lot richer, and the unemployment lines longer.

There’s much more to the authors’ argument. Suffice it to say that this is a very cogent and persuasive read – and at just 54 pages, a quick one. And its larger message is not bad news. The book ends with a hopeful nod toward a future in which we humans learn to collaborate better with our technologies, rather than viewing them as the enemy – and an agenda for getting there. If we use our gadgets to tap our own uniquely human strengths (e.g. the creativity and leadership skills that no machine can match), in the long run, there’s no way we can lose.

“We still firmly believe in the promise of the digital frontier. . . . Around the world, economies, societies, and people’s lives have been improved by digital goods and high-tech products; these happy trends will continue, and likely accelerate.”

It’s an inspiring vision, one to which all of us, computers included, should be able to say yes. I can’t think of a better first step than reading this important, eye-opening book.

.         .         .

Race Against The Machine can be purchased here.

November 3rd, 2011|

Notes From Australia

In Canberra - photo by Andrew Sheargold

I’m just back from an amazing tour of Australia, where I talked about Hamlet’s BlackBerry in all kinds of places, including two writers’ festivals and more media outlets than I can count. I’m thrilled the book has touched a chord in Australia, a culture I came to love, and I want to share some of the highlights of my three weeks there.

First, a little background. In 2008, Australian journalist and media scholar Matthew Ricketson wrote a newspaper piece about my essay, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” which I wrote as a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. When I expanded the essay into a book and it came out in Australia, Matthew reviewed it in The Australian newspaper. He’s now a professor at the University of Canberra, where he’s assigned the book to his students, and thanks to him, the university underwrote my trip. My wonderful Australian publisher, Scribe, welcomed this news and organized an extensive itinerary for me.

It began in Melbourne, a great city where there seems to be a bookstore on every block. I spoke at the Melbourne Writers Festival, a terrific annual gathering that was my introduction to how much Australia loves books and the people who write them. I did a panel about technology and the future of journalism, and an “in conversation” with Ricketson, which was broadcast by the ABC (Australia’s national television network) and is watchable here. (See this brief “highlight” clip for the best account of the Internet Sabbath I’ve ever given.) In addition to the festival, I got in a few swims at Melbourne’s Edwardian City Baths, a public pool like no other.

Next I went to Canberra, where I spoke twice at the university and also at Australia’s National Library – the latter presentation is now a podcast. Judith Ireland of The Canberra Times wrote a thoughtful piece about my visit, which also ran in the The Sydney Morning Herald alongside a video interview with SMH Tablet Editor Stephen Hutcheon. I had a spirited conversation with ABC Radio’s Louise Maher, a gifted interviewer. And I spent some time at Australia’s stunning Parliament House, where Katharine Murphy of The Age newspaper kindly showed me around the press gallery and introduced me to some of the nation’s leading political journalists.

On to Sydney, where I appeared on several excellent Australian radio shows:  “Mornings with Margaret Throsby” (a one-hour conversation with the legendary host, interspersed with my desert-island classical music choices); ABC Radio Sydney’s “Drive with Richard Glover” (a lively chat with the hugely popular host and all-round great guy); and “PM With Mark Colvin” (a deep media thinker who engaged me in an incisive dialogue about the perils of digital slavery).

I was scheduled to have a brief coffee with Australian MP, technology leader and protean public figure Malcolm Turnbull. The planned fifteen minutes extended to an hour, at which point Turnbull proposed we walk over to Hyde Park and shoot a video for his website. The delightful result is impossible to convey in words – if you watch it, try to imagine a major American political leader (many Australians told me they see Turnbull as their dream Prime Minister) having such a good time in his own YouTube production.

I also gave a talk at Sydney’s Customs House. The room was full, the Q & A was remarkable and many books were sold.

The last stop was Queensland for the marvelous Brisbane Writers Festival, which began with a 3-day retreat at the Sanctuary Cove resort for the writers who had come from abroad. After various adventures including a rain-forest hike, we went into Brisbane for the festival. As in Melbourne, I was blown away by the energy of the city and the generosity of the festival organizers. In addition to speaking on panels with wildly accomplished writers, and happily signing a lot of books, I had a probing radio chat with polymathic Brisbane author and journalist John Birmingham and, patching me in to Adelaide, the ABC’s charming Carole Whitelock.

Like any society, Australia has its problems, but it exudes a vitality that the rest of the world could learn from right now. As I walked around glorious Brisbane on my last day, I wanted to bring some of that spirit home with me. Here’s hoping I get to return one day soon. Thank you, Australia.

September 15th, 2011|

A paperback writer, at last

The Paperback Edition

Ta – Da.

Here’s the paperback, just out. When HarperCollins first told me they were thinking of giving it a new jacket, I was nervous. I liked the hardcover jacket a lot. And in my travels this past year, more than a few people told me the smiling smartphone made the book feel friendly to them.

But then I saw this. And it was orange. Not just any orange, but a cheerful orange full of good vibes. With a simple graphic rendition of my message. Suddenly, I didn’t miss the smiley-face at all.

I hope readers like it, too. Publishing industry types tell me e-books have seriously eaten into the old paperback market. But I know there are a lot of people out there who like holding a nice, well-designed softcover in their hands.

As a kid, I spent so many happy hours with paperbacks – the skinny old Vonneguts and Bradburys, the black Penguin edition of The Odyssey I still keep close by (on the cover are scrawled the words “19 YEARS GONE” – how long Odysseus was away from home – in my teenage hand) and so many others. The paperback is really the talisman of my reading life, and I’ve always dreamed of having one with my name on it.

In short, I’m really happy to see the book in these new clothes.

August 10th, 2011|

Hamlet’s BlackBerry Named Finalist for 2011 Massachusetts Book Award

Hamlet’s BlackBerry is a finalist for the 2011 Massachusetts Book Awards.

Just 12 books were selected in the non-fiction category and I’m deeply honored mine is among them.

Sweet news made even sweeter by the fact that one of the other non-fiction finalists is Schooner by Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw. Tom is a friend of mine and his book tells the story of the building of one amazing wooden boat. Tom’s clean, compelling prose and Alison’s gorgeous photos work together to create an unforgettable journey into New England people, craft and culture – truly a work of art.

Congratulations to Tom and Alison and all the other honorees.

The finalists appear together as “Must-Read Books for 2011” on the poster you see above, coming soon to libraries around the state.

May 16th, 2011|

A Conversation on NPR’s “On Point”

I was a guest on the NPR talk show “On Point,” with Tom Ashbrook.  There were two other guests, David Gerzof Richard of Emerson College and Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal, and the subject was Life with Texting. We discussed how to manage and make sense of all this digital connectedness and had a lively exchange.

Though it’s produced out of WBUR in Boston, “On Point” is heard on more than 200 NPR affiliates around the country, and Ashbrook took calls from far and wide.

The most intriguing came from a woman who suggested that maybe, at some point down the road, the trend will reverse and living digitally will become, well, uncool. Kind of hard to imagine right now. . . .

The full audio is here.

May 16th, 2011|

Hamlet’s BlackBerry One of “7 Must-Read Books on the Future of the Internet”

I’ve just learned that Brain Pickings, the widely followed blog about 21st Century culture, recently published a list of the “7 Must-Read Books on the Future of the Internet,” and  Hamlet’s BlackBerry is Number 3.

Maria Popova, the brains behind Brain Pickings, writes:

William Powers offers a toolkit of refreshing remedies for our chronically multitasking, digitally distracted selves, collected from historical figures that lived long before the digital age. From Thoreau’s “Internet Sabbaths” to productivity apps from Shakespeare, Powers blends the advantages of constant connectivity with the caution we need to exercise as we engage with the world in these new ways, extending an invitation to subvert our media routines in a way that prioritizes happiness over blind efficiency.”

Thank you, Maria.  The full post is here.

April 1st, 2011|

Poynter’s Steve Myers on Hamlet’s BlackBerry and ‘Digital White Space’

Where you want to be

When you say something at South by Southwest (SXSW), it sure reverberates. Poynter, the journalism institute, just published a great piece by Steve Myers headlined, “How ‘Hamlet’s BlackBerry’ & ‘Think Quarterly’ Show Why We Should Stop Toggling Between Screens and Stretch Our Minds.”

Myers does an amazing job of capturing my presentation at SXSW. And I like the way he linked my message to the principle behind Think, a magazine Google has just launched. Its goal: to help us find “breathing space in a busy world.”

The need was especially evident at SXSW, an event that famously aims to spark creativity and human connections, yet often feels like a gigantic competition to see who can be more absent from the people and conversations happening right around them. Everyone in Austin was gazing into their little devices – a bit desperately, too, as if their lives depended on not missing the next tweet.

Since SXSW is a proven predictor of where we’ll all be in a few years, get ready for a world in which eye contact and real listening are as rare as black truffles and the Northern Lights.  Do we really want that?  Here’s Myers:

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.

He explains my theory that this challenge is not as new as it seems. Something similar occurs every time an innovative technology comes along. It’s simple: New connective devices make the world – and the mind – a busier place. It happened in ancient Greece and in Renaissance Europe and in 19th-century America, and it’s happening again now. As in those previous epochs, it’s up to us to find ways to quiet our minds, focus, leave the crowd behind.

Why? Because that’s where all the good stuff happens, including those wild, original thoughts nobody’s ever had before. If you spend you all day and night burrowing into your smartphone, you can kiss the eureka moments goodbye. Look up! Hit the off button! Pay attention! Show up for your 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.

The full piece is here.

March 25th, 2011|

My Keynote at SXSW

Austin, Where Geeks Converge

I spoke at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, where people flock to see new films, listen to great music and imagine the tech future. It’s been called “a massive geek convergence,” and, being a geek at heart, I had an excellent time.

While writing Hamlet’s BlackBerry, I had a gut belief that many others out there were feeling like slaves to the screen and craving a new approach to digital life. I fantasized that some day there’d be a great awakening and people would come together to share ideas about how to use these amazing tools more thoughtfully, so they truly enrich our lives and help us build a better world.

Well, it’s starting to happen, and in the very places where the old philosophy I call Digital Maximalism – the more connected you are 24/7, the better – was born.

The New York Times ran a story about SXSW, and my presentation, under the headline – “All That Logging In Makes Dropping Out That Much More Difficult” – echoing the point I’ve been making for the last nine months: There’s a new consciousness emerging among the young and the idealistic that staring into screens all day turns you into a drone and conformist.

It’s starting to feel like what I’ve always imagined the late 1950s must have been like. The smartphone is becoming The Gadget in the Gray Flannel Suit. People want to break away and rediscover life’s richness.

“Dropping out” isn’t the solution. The tech vanguard has always been right about one thing:  The digital age is full of promise. It would be stupid to run away from it now, just because our twitter feeds and inboxes are driving us crazy. We can take back our lives, and the first step is changing our philosophy.

From the NYT story about SXSW:

“I was one of the earliest Twitter users,” testified one computer programmer, who said he is now designing a filter to weed out tweets. “I got into it at South by.” He was speaking from the audience during a question-and-answer session of a presentation by William Powers, the author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” who was there to explain “How to Liberate Yourself From Digital Addiction.”

Mr. Powers has become something of an apostle for the “get-off-line-sometimes” movement over the last nine months . . .

The full piece is here.

March 23rd, 2011|

Be Still, My Smartphone

The Daily, a Newspaper for the iPad

I wrote a piece for The Daily, the new iPad newspaper, about the evolutionary shift that I see happening all around us in digital technology and culture. After two decades of enthusiasm for the new connectedness, and uncritical applause for all devices that make us MORE connected – and therefore, busier and more crowd-dependent –  we’ve begun a course correction.

The philosophy I call Digital Maximalism ( the more connected you are, the better) isn’t working. People everywhere are realizing that it’s time to work some disconnectedness back into the equation. Some of the most prominent figures in the digital world, people who used to preach the virtues of the 24/7 screen life, have discovered that it’s no way to live.

The point of the column is that technology itself can help us by changing the way it delivers information. It’s happened many times before in human history, and I have no doubt it will happen again. Our tools will evolve and improve, so we can do the same.

A web version of the piece (not half as good-looking as the original iPad version) is here.

March 10th, 2011|

The New Yorker on Hamlet’s BlackBerry


In The New Yorkers anniversary issue, Adam Gopnik discusses and quotes from Hamlet’s BlackBerry.  In “How the Internet Gets Inside Us” (kudos to whoever crafted that headline) he notes that there’s been a spate of recent books trying to make sense of life with modern technology. Though he read about twenty of them, the essay focuses on just a handful.

Several of  my favorite writers on this subject – Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Andy Clark and Ann Blair – are also discussed. Gopnik organizes the authors into three categories: the Never-Betters (digital enthusiasts), the Better-Nevers (who wish these devices had never arrived) and the Ever-Wasers (who believe transformations like this have happened all through history).

I was surprised to see Hamlet’s BlackBerry in the Better-Nevers column, as were others who have read the book.  “I disagree with Gopnik’s placement of Hamlet’s BlackBerry in the Better-Never,” writes MaryAnn McKibben Dana of The Blue Room blog. “I think he is an Ever-Waser.”

In fact, Hamlet’s BlackBerry is an extended argument for the Ever-Waser perspective.

Still, it was good to see the book talked about alongside others that I admire, and quoted at length, in this wide-ranging piece.  You can read the full version here.

February 17th, 2011|

Balance Your Digital Life – A Creative Competition Featuring Hamlet’s BlackBerry


Yoxi is an organization that uses games to foster social innovation. They’re now running a competition in which teams try to come up with creative ideas for curing digital addiction, and win cash prizes.

Teams are being recruited at local events where copies of Hamlet’s BlackBerry and other good stuff is being given away.

They asked me to help out by doing a video interview. I couldn’t get to New York to do it in person, so we did it by skype. The result is now playing on Yoxi’s website, which features three digital thinkers – Amber Case, Douglas Rushkoff and me – talking about different aspects of screen life. In the video I seem a little, um, intense.  But passion’s a good thing, right?

Check it out here:  http://www.yoxi.tv/

January 24th, 2011|

William Powers on The PBS NewsHour

The NewsHour anchors, Jeffrey Brown at far right

The PBS NewsHour aired a terrific piece about Hamlet’s BlackBerry.  Correspondent Jeffrey Brown and producer Anne Davenport, along with their crew, spent an entire day at our house. The result deftly captures the book’s essence as well as what motivated me to write it.

Here’s Jeffrey Brown on the intersection between the book and my personal life:

“Now, Powers is no angry prophet spewing venom at modern life and its toys. He uses and loves them himself. He’s as multi as the next tasker, as a former reporter and longtime media columnist. And he knows very well that technology helps make his current lifestyle possible. Powers can write his articles from afar, and so can his wife, Martha Sherrill, who is working on her fifth book in another corner of their 150-year-old Cape house. They, along with 12-year-old William, who, like kids everywhere, loves his screens, can be as connected as they want or need to be. And, yet, says Powers, all that connection to the outside meant something lost inside the home.”

We also got to do a little canoeing.

You can watch the piece here.

(An “extended” video version of my interview with Brown is linked on the same page, including moments that didn’t make the final cut for television.)

August 17th, 2010|

Technorati Review of Hamlet’s BlackBerry

Debbie Hemley Read Hamlet's BlackBerry by Candlelight

A delightful review of Hamlet’s BlackBerry appeared on the front page of Technorati, the popular website for technology news, thought and gossip.  The reviewer, blogger and social-media expert Debbie Hemley, recounts her own experience reading the book during a blackout.

“I had come home earlier to discover that the electricity was out in our neighborhood since everyone had probably tried cranking up their air conditioners in the same millisecond. I was immediately captivated by Hamlet’s Blackberry, and with the author coming clean about how obsessed he had become with his multiple screens and how, for that matter, his whole family had, too.”

As the sun went down, Hemley was tempted to read the book by the glow of her smartphone.  But that wouldn’t be fitting for this book, she concluded, and instead lit some candles.

“And, so, I read that night by glorious candlelight. I read Hamlet’s Blackberry in the true spirit I believe it was written to comprehend. I read about the “Seven Philosophers of Screens” including Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau and McLuhan and how Digital Maximalism is the wrong approach. Powers suggests that connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.”

Read the full review here.

August 9th, 2010|

William Powers on The Leonard Lopate Show (WNYC)

Leonard Lopate

I was interviewed by Leonard  Lopate on his influential radio program, The Leonard Lopate Show, out of public-radio station WNYC in New York City.

Lopate  is known for his searching author interviews, and in our half-hour chat he asked some excellent questions about Hamlet’s BlackBerry that I had not been asked before.  For example:

“You’ve conceded that the use of a new technology has coincided with a change in the way people think.  And you cite the development of the printing press in the 1400s by Johannes Gutenberg of Germany as having helped usher in an age of linear thinking.  People weren’t thinking in a linear way before?”

An astute point. In reply, I noted that in talking about the supposed birth of linear thinking, I was only recounting Marshall McLuhan’s theory about the impact of Gutenberg on the mind, which I don’t subscribe to in its entirety.

It was a stimulating interview, and you can hear the whole thing here.

July 27th, 2010|

Katie Couric Interviews William Powers

Katie Couric and William Powers

Katie Couric interviewed me for @KATIECOURIC, her long-form online interview show.  It was the perfect venue for discussing Hamlet’s BlackBerry and we had an excellent conversation.

It was clear she had read the book – not a given, especially with media stars – and she asked really probing questions. We talked about digital gadgets at home, at work and in church. We talked about iPhones and the brain, and the relationship (or non-relationship) between BlackBerrys and sex.

But for me, the best part of the interview was when we got my talking about my favorite self-help book, the ’70s classic How to Be Your Own Best Friend, and its argument that a good life begins with the ability to be happy alone.

We agreed it’s not an easy skill to master.  A lifelong challenge, really.

You can watch the full interview here.

July 21st, 2010|

Washington Post Reviews Hamlet’s BlackBerry

The Washington Post

The Washington Post published a review of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, reviewed jointly with the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  Some media outlets have been pitting the books against each other like this, as if Carr and I were boxers in a winner-take-all prizefight.

But books are nothing like boxing. Luckily, there’s room in the world for all kinds of different books, and when a new one is added to the mix we’re all winners.

I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, but it sounds like he addresses some of the same questions I take on in Hamlet’s BlackBerry. I look forward to reading The Shallows.

Of my book, Post reviewer Jennifer Howard wrote:

“There’s more than a little comfort to be had from looking back and seeing that people did manage to cope with the new technologies that came their way, whether it was writing or printing or the telegraph of Thoreau’s time. For those who feel they really can’t live without their little glowing friends, Powers suggests it’s possible to be connected to the digital world and to something deeper as well.”

The full review is here.

July 18th, 2010|

New York Times Reviews Hamlet’s BlackBerry

Choose Your Medium

The New York Times published a review of Hamlet’s BlackBerry in its Sunday Book Review section.

Critic Laurie Winer called the book “an elegant meditation on our obsessive connectivity,” and noted, “his ruminations are penetrating, his language clear and strong, and his historical references are restorative.”

Her thoughtful review ends with an idea that drove the essay Hamlet’s BlackBerry but doesn’t loom so large in the book – the enduring utility of paper as medium. Winer writes:

“As a salve for those who are perhaps prematurely mourning the death of paper, Powers writes of his preference for jotting down ideas in a Moleskine notebook, a ‘seemingly anachronistic tool’ that he feels is essential to his well-being. Most writers still love paper. Some things are irreplaceable, and Powers explains why. His notebook allows him to ‘pull ideas not only out of my mind but out of the ethereal digital dimension and give them material presence and stability. Yes, you exist, the notebook reminds us, you are worthy of this world.”

It’s a good read, and the full version is here.

July 16th, 2010|

Interview with Ronn Owens, KGO San Francisco

Ronn Owens

My first interview in the Bay Area was with San Francisco talk-radio legend Ronn Owens of KGO-AM SanFrancisco.

It was a rollicking hour-long interview, and huge fun. Ronn asked me at the outset to stay away from anything “touchy-feely.” I agreed to try but lapsed a few times. He didn’t seem to mind.

At one point we ad-libbed a mattress commercial.

Ronn, a self-described gadget-lover, seemed into the Hamlet’s BlackBerry philosophy.

He has a big following:  more than a few of the people who came to my Bay Rea readings mentioned that they’d heard me on the Ronn Owens Show.

The interview doesn’t appear to be archived online. I like the idea that radio sometimes just floats off into the atmosphere, unrecoverable.

For a taste of Ronn, visit his Twitter page.

July 12th, 2010|

Interview with Marc Cohen, KABC-AM, Los Angeles

I did a fun interview with Marc Cohen on the “Computer and Technology Radio” show out of KABC-AM in LA.  Co-host Marsha Collier was off so it was just Marc and me.

Marc’s positive reaction to Hamlet’s BlackBerry confirmed a trend I’ve noticed from the start:  The most fervent technology fans tend to understand the need for balance, because they’re the most connected of all.

Listen to the interview here.

July 10th, 2010|

William Powers on “The Diane Rehm Show” (NPR)

Diane Rehm

I was on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR for a full hour, talking about Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

Diane asked some of the most probing questions I’ve gotten about the book, and the calls and emails were terrific.

This was also the first time I’ve been asked to read, something I’ll be doing often while on tour in the coming weeks. Diane chose the opening of Chapter Two, “Hello, Mother,” about calling my mom from the car. I have no idea how the reading sounded, but the listener comments were very positive.

I know why Diane Rehm has such a huge following. She comes at books in a very human way, straight from the heart, and she lets the conversation go wherever it wants to.

Listen to the interview here.

July 9th, 2010|

Interview on TheStreet.com Radio, “The Real Story”

I was interviewed on TheStreet.com’s radio show,” The Real Story with Gregg Greenberg,” about Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

Greenberg nicely summed up one of the book’s fundamental ideas when he asked:

“Are you saying we hit a point of marginal diminishing returns, where if you just keep checking your BlackBerry, even when you’re on vacation, you’re less efficient?”

Exactly. It had never occurred to me that this point could be expressed so well in the language of business. Marginal diminishing returns is exactly what you get when you stay connected to your screen all the time.

You can listen to the broadcast here. (Scroll to the show dated 7/6/2010. My segment begins at 17:20)

July 6th, 2010|

Interview with NPR’s “Marketplace”

Kai Ryssdal

Kai Ryssdal of “Marketplace” interviewed me about Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

He was especially interested in the chapter about Seneca (circa 3 B.C. – 65 A.D.).

Read the text of the interview.

Or listen to it here.

June 30th, 2010|

William Powers on ABC’s “Good Morning America”

Claire Shipman

On the day Hamlet’s BlackBerry was published, I appeared on Good Morning America, talking about digitally addicted families and what we can gain by better balancing our digital lives. I was interviewed, talking about my family’s ritual of disconnected weekends – what we call the Internet Sabbath – and other aspects of the book.

At the end of the piece, correspondent Claire Shipman, speaking from what appeared to be her kitchen, said the Internet Sabbath sounded like just the thing for overconnected families, including her own:

“Do you have a problem? Are you missing important events? Do you miss your electronic gadgets long after you’ve put them away? You might need an Internet Sabbath. And I’ll tell you . . . doing this piece made me realize that our family certainly needs one.”

The text of the GMA piece, with a link to the “extended” video version (not quite the same as what aired) is here.

June 30th, 2010|

Wall Street Journal Reviews Hamlet’s BlackBerry

The Wall Street Journal gave  Hamlet’s BlackBerry a great review today.  Excerpt from David Harsanyi’s piece:

“[E]ven a jaded reader is likely to be won over by “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” It convincingly argues that we’ve ceded too much of our existence to what he calls Digital Maximalism. Less scold and more philosopher, Mr. Powers certainly bemoans the spread of technology in our lives, but he also offers a compelling discussion of our dependence on contraptions and of the ways in which we might free ourselves from them. I buy it. I need quiet time.”

Read the full review here.

June 30th, 2010|

Interview, “All Sides with Ann Fisher”

I was interviewed by Ann Fisher of public-radio station WOSU-AM, Columbus, OH.  The show is called “All Sides with Ann Fisher.”

There were quite a few callers and they had good questions.  Listen to the full interview here.

June 30th, 2010|

“Did You See?” (NYT)

In his analysis of the Gen. McChrystal story, New York Times media columnist and blogger David Carr cites an idea of mine.

“Author and media thinker William Powers once described a fact of contemporary media life, something called “Did You See?” meaning we are all commenting and annotating some piece of news, but when you get right down to it, nobody has actually read the darn thing.”

To elaborate: In the old media days, when there were just a handful powerful outlets, you could assume others were not just familiar with major news stories of the day but had personally read, heard or watched those stories.  Today, when there is no news organ that everyone follows, and nobody has time to track anything in depth, that assumption no longer holds.

The only news outlet we all share in common is “Did You See?”  As in, “Did you see what happened to that general?”

Carr’s full piece is here.

June 29th, 2010|

William Powers on Oprah Radio’s “The Derrick Ashong Experience”

Derrick Ashong

Oprah’s Derrick Ashong interviewed me live on his weekly Sirius/XM radio show.

The first thing we talked about was my voice.

The second thing we talked about was my essay about the future paper.

The third thing we talked about was Hamlet’s BlackBerry, the book.

Derrick is open, enthusiastic and fun. I had a great time.

You can watch him (and listen to me) do the interview here.

June 26th, 2010|

Financial Times Summit

William Powers speaking at Financial Times summit, Los Angeles, 6.14.2010

I spoke at the Financial Times newspaper’s annual “Business of Luxury” summit on June 14, 2010 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.

The panel was called “Do 600,000 Facebook Friends Equal One Sale?” I argued that consumers have begun craving disconnectedness to offset digital overload, and forward-thinking businesses should factor this into their marketing and branding efforts. I don’t think a constant stream of emails and tweets is a smart way to sell anything.

Managed to work in a Lady Gaga allusion (“Stop calling me, I’m kinda busy”), which seemed to go over well.

June 21st, 2010|

Warren Olney Interview

The Internet and the Human Brain
To the Point • Friday June 11, 2010

The development of electronic media is the biggest thing since the printing press, and it’s altering the way the human brain functions. While neuroscientists try to figure out how that’s happening, we hear a debate about whether the outcome is good or bad.

Please click on the link below to hear the interview. William’s segment is at the 13:05 minute mark:
William Powers on To the Point with Warren Olney

June 12th, 2010|

First Steps to Digital Detox – NYT Blog by William Powers

“First Steps to Digital Detox,” The New York Times, Room for Debate, June 7, 2010
Click here for the entire article on the NYTimes site. Read my contribution below.

first steps to digital detox

The problem isn’t our iPhones and BlackBerrys, it’s how we’re using them. We’ve simply gone overboard, surrendered too much of our lives to our little screens.

Know why you’re withdrawing from your devices and make it a habit.

First, it’s essential to recognize that this is a completely normal human response to a powerful new technology. People have been addicted to connectedness since the dawn of time. We need it to get ahead in life, learn about the world beyond ourselves, find happiness and meaning. Some of the most accomplished figures in history have struggled with the challenge captured in Matt Richtel’s story, that restless inability to stop connecting.


June 9th, 2010|

Mario Garcia Interviews William Powers

Interview by Mario Garcia on May 3rd.
Read the entire post (with pictures!) here, or the transcript posted below.

‘Disconnect is emerging as the ultimate luxury destination’

TAKEAWAY: William Powers, author of the soon to be published, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, talks about the effects of digital technology on our forever-connected lives, and takes us on a journey to the ultimate destination: disconnect.

William Powers and I happened to be in New York City at the same time last week, and we agreed to meet at the always cozy and welcoming The M Bar (12 West 44th Street,), conveniently located across from The Harvard Club where William (Harvard ‘83) is staying. I am delighted that William has agreed to a brief interview as we enjoy martinis and bubblies.  I know that the conversation will be mostly about the “art of the disconnect”, that rare form of 21st century luxury that seems to elude many as they hold on to every new gadget that the technology has created to connect us better.
William manages to turn “disconnect” into a destination, and his new book, to be published in June, is a sort of travel guide to get us there.  I have already given “disconnect” the required three-initial airport code, DCT.


June 9th, 2010|

Business Week on Hamlet’s BlackBerry as Productivity Tool

“Tech Tools and Tricks that Boost Productivity,”
by Arik Hesseldahl, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, April 11, 2010
Hamlet’s BlackBerry is mentioned in “share your Google Calendar” section

In a survey for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, LinkedIn users named technologies that aid—or sap—productivity. Here’s how to make them work.

The official measurements tell us that worker productivity is growing at its fastest pace in years. Anyone not living in a cave for the past two years can tell you why: Having slashed payroll, companies—and their employees—are doing more with less. That’s why productivity jumped 6.9% in the fourth quarter of 2009 to a level not seen since 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


June 9th, 2010|

“Do School Libraries Need Books?” by William Powers (NYT)

“Do School Libraries Need Books?”
The New York Times, Room for Debate page, February 10, 2010
Click here for the entire article. Read William’s segment below.

A Place to Learn

“Books offer a place away from the inbox, where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect.”

In times of rapid technological change, there’s a natural tendency to get caught up in the moment and believe the past is being completely swept away, along with all the technologies it produced. As one of the teachers at Cushing Academy put it, “This is the start of a new era.”

This is indeed the start of a new era. Digital devices are transforming how we live in all kinds of thrilling ways, and we’ve only begun to explore their potential. But embracing these new tools doesn’t require us to simultaneously throw out all the old ones, particularly those that continue to serve useful purposes. Who says it has to be an either-or decision?


June 9th, 2010|
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