Connections

An Interview with William Powers

We are living through an age of disruption driven by digital technology. In every sphere, from the political to the personal, profound changes wrought by social media and the ubiquity of screens make themselves felt daily. MIT’s William Powers, author of the bestseller Hamlet’s Blackberry and an authority on the intersection of public and private life at the technological crossroads, argues that we have not yet seen the real tectonic shifts — and that our anxiety around these issues is nothing new.

Flickr. The coffee houses of 17th-century London fueled social disruption much the way digital tech does today.

Flickr. The coffee houses of 17th-century London fueled social disruption much the way digital tech does today.

Octavian Report: Focus is a critical concept in your work. Can you talk about what it is, how we gain it, and how we lose it?

William Powers: We have these amazing cognitive powers that are part of being a human being. We can use them effectively or we can squander them every single moment of the day. We’re incredibly good at coming up with ingenious inventions that take us to great new places, both individually and as a society. But in the early days of any tech revolution, harnessing them in ways that are productive and positive, and afford focus — the effectiveness that is us at our best — is really hard to figure out. I think we’re only at the beginning of working out that problem.

When I did one of my first talks after the publication of Hamlet’s Blackberry, at Google, I realized that the technologists are struggling with it as much as we are. More so, maybe, because so much of their time is spent online. They realize we have to take this to a better, more constructive place. It’s disrupting everything, much of it in a positive way, but there are also a lot of negative disruptions. I think the political conversation is one of the big puzzles. People are realizing that the current political upheaval is actually driven, at least in large part if not entirely, by the revolution we’re living through with technology.

OR: Do you think that the kind of extremism we’re seeing globally, and to a lesser extent here in the U.S. with Donald Trump, is in some sense an artifact of the social media revolution?

Powers: What’s interesting in the way you just posed that question about Trump and all this disruption, is that it’s happening globally. I was in Spain in May and everyone there seemed to be talking about the U.S. election, and not out of casual interest but with a sense of serious anxiety. Everywhere there’s this mix of anxiety, dread, and excitement, because all the cards have been thrown up in the air and nobody knows where they’re going to land. It’s very much related to everybody suddenly having a voice online; and a few people, Trump and Bernie Sanders in particular, learning to leverage that change and emerging as figures people will really listen to and follow, though in very different ways and styles. As you know, Trump comes out of this reality TV —  I don’t want to call it tradition, but The Apprentice was on for a long time. The Washington Post had a fascinating article where they went into the heartland and talked to people about the Trump and Sanders phenomena. One young man said he supports Trump because of how he came across on The Apprentice: “I have always looked up to Mr. Trump. I like how when he walks into a room, he commands the room. I enjoyed that show. He was almost like a role model for me.” Nothing about immigration or any other policy issues. That’s amazing! That’s old mass-media feeding into this new digital media age we’re in, and this person basically saying, “This commanding reality TV star is my idea of a person who should lead the country.”

OR: Can you talk about the impact devices have on people and whether we’re really wired to handle the way we’re interacting with them?

Powers: I think people are finally grasping the enormity of the overload problem and developing their own strategies to solve it. I’ve found the people who are smartest about it, and this is so encouraging, are the Millennials — exactly the generation many Baby Boomers feared was going to be a disaster, a bunch of hopeless screen addicts.

They’re not. You see them walking down the street like the rest of us, looking at their phones, but they are thoughtful about this in a way older people are not. For them, it’s like television was for my generation: I was born with this technology, we can do better, I’m going to rethink it. They’re very tech-positive in a way I think is great.

In a way the shattering of attention span and the rise of mass distractedness (which is really what I was addressing in Hamlet’s Blackberry) is actually a return to the way we were wired to be by evolution. If you go way back, pre-civilization, we were living in the wilderness trying to get by as hunter-gatherers; short attention span was a survival mechanism. If you were moving through the savannah, looking for food, and you saw a sudden movement in the brush next to you, that could be a threat. It was a good thing to have a short attention span. Many of our achievements as a civilization have been about overriding that primitive wiring. Learning to read, which is not something we’re born how to do. Learning to have focus. Learning to marshal our attention.

The long attention span that’s required to, say, read a book is an acquired skill. Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows is an especially smart take on the problem of digital devices being the future even as they take us back to this earlier version of ourselves — one that in a way disables some of our most valuable skills. We see this problem visited on the life that is nearest and dearest to us, which is our families, the terrible fact that I call “the vanishing family trick.” I saw this happening in my own family: at night we would just have our backs to each other as we burrowed into our screens. We’d be completely separated, no longer having what I considered to be a good family life, a healthy family life, which is real connection, real focus on each other, real conversation and exchange. It was a complete mesmerization by the screen and the digital crowd that is constantly beckoning.

I think a lot of the draw has been the novelty of it. We all went through it together, and we’re still going through it. But thoughtful people are realizing that’s not the way to live. It’s not the way to get anywhere in life.

I have seen, in doing alumni interviews for my college for people who are applying, that the kids who have their act together all have digital strategies and all have ways of organizing their lives — be it offline or online. I had one applicant say, “The second I got to high school, I realized I had to really bring this under control or I was going to be a failure in high school and not go anywhere in life. So I started reading books about zen ” This was a young woman still in high school. That is really impressive, and a great sign about where we’re headed.

I think, globally, we’re making this transit. It’s in our own consciousness as we live each day, and it’s writ large in events as big as the U.S. presidential election and the ways the candidates emerged and how we talk about them.

The project I’m doing at the MIT Media Lab, The Electome, is very much about trying to take the new democratic conversation and use big data techniques to make it be more meaningful and valuable than whatever was the jokey hashtag of the day. What major issues are people talking about most? Who are the Trump people? Who are the Hillary people?

There’s a lot of data on this. We have 500 million tweets a day. We go and pull out the U.S. election piece of that, which is millions of tweets. The 140 characters in a tweet may not seem like much, but when you’ve got that many people using this medium to talk about an election, there are all kinds of things to learn. We’re already seeing it and producing content about it, which we’re publishing with The Washington Post and other media partners.

“In my own family, we would just have our backs to each other as we burrowed into our screens.”

—William Powers

OR: Is Twitter the most important social platform?

Powers: For the election it is. Full disclosure: Twitter was the original funding supporter of my group at the lab, so I need to acknowledge that connection. They gave us, as part of their gift, full access to the daily “fire hose”— all the tweets — as well as the full archive back to the first tweet. So we are able to go in and every day and pull out the U.S. election conversation, which nobody’s been able to do.

We classify everything by issue, by candidate. We then track how different issues — immigration, economy, guns, and so forth — wax and wane, and how that conversation is changed by election events such as a big debate or by exogenous events such as a mass shooting.

OR: How do you think this is affecting education?

Powers: We’re beginning to get some signals about where this is heading. There are all kinds books coming out about the psychological effects on children of these devices. They are growing up very differently. A lot of it is about this new way of navigating the world that they’re acquiring.

The generations have a lot to learn from each other. I learned about the amazing game Minecraft through my son, which was actually exciting. I hope he has learned from me some of these ideas about focus and about bringing your own willpower and philosophical values to the challenge of digital overload. That is what is required. YouTube is great, Twitter is great, all these platforms and devices have incredible potential. But if you allow them to be the captains of your consciousness you’re not going to get to the place you want to go.

Also, it’s up to organizations, including schools, to be thoughtful about this. I’ve given lots of talks at schools, and everyone has a different approach. The great thing is they’re all thinking about it and trying to come up with answers. There are some schools where the bias is clearly pro-device, and there are others where there is a questioning of the technology. It’s a time, as in politics, of education being turned completely upside-down and remade, for better and for worse.

OR: When have there been other technological disruptions on this scale?

Powers: The digital age is the most recent chapter of a larger shift that really began in the mid-19th century with the instantaneous communication of the telegraph. The telegraph was really disruptive. People were completely thrown off, from their personal lives to how to run a business: “Oh my God, I can get a message instantly from another continent. How do we handle all this incoming?”

It was a lot of the same questions. People were worried about the effect on the family. I think everyone who lives through a big technology revolution, every generation that has that happen, thinks it’s the big one. We have a lot of evidence that supports the idea that this is indeed the big one, but it’s impossible to know. Change is happening more quickly now because of the nature of the technologies, but it’s so fundamental that I think it will be many generations before we have a clear idea of what this was all about.

The historical arc I trace in the book begins with Socrates. In his time, it was the advent of the alphabet, the written word, which supplanted the oral tradition in many aspects of life. Suddenly, people were walking around transfixed by, as he put it, these fixed, frozen words on the page that can never go anywhere creative or productive. He felt people were becoming slaves to something incredibly dangerous. Let’s face it: though he was one of the smartest guys who ever lived, he got that wrong.

The argument for the disruption of the alphabet being as big as this one is pretty persuasive. So I think you have to be careful being historicist and getting trapped in the reality of the moment you’re living through. On the other hand, when we look at the wide-ranging effects of what we’re living through, we know it’s big. It’s global. It’s more global than any of these earlier revolutions have been.

OR: How do you see the massive effect all this has on privacy playing out?

Powers: In our group at the Media Lab, we call it “mutual visibility.” We’re all mutually visible to each other, as individuals and organizations. We’re really struggling with this. I think Millennials in particular, and everyone who’s going to come after them, are more used to living in public and less afraid of it. They take it for granted.

People who grew up in the 20th century went through a similar transition. If you were walking down the street and someone was doing a TV interview and you walked in front of the camera, you might be on world-wide TV. That was kind of shocking. But it was less personal, it was less “Let me pick up my phone and do something and put it right on YouTube, I can talk to the whole world personally.” To people of my age, that feels really like a huge deal. To a young person, it’s not. “I’m in touch with the world all the time. I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”

I said earlier that I think we can learn from kids and they can learn from us. In a sense, the latter part hasn’t been embraced as much because the consumer society has a tendency to emphasize the new; but I think the wisdom that comes from both education and life experience has a lot to contribute to this world we’re in now.

Not all the thinkers and leaders young people are turning to and believing in are young. Look at the remaining presidential candidates right now as we speak. They’re both at the senior end of things, which is somewhat remarkable in the digital age.

OR: Marshall McLuhan stands, some might argue, as a prophet of the world we now live in. Do you see his work as still relevant?

Powers: McLuhan is very exciting to read today. I don’t know if he’s having a kind of renaissance, but my sense is he’s not, and that’s too bad. People know his catchphrases: the medium is the message, the global village. Those are the two big ones. But his work was about so much more.

He was fascinated by how the emergence of a new technology literally changes the mechanics and the fabric of our consciousness. He was also a bit of a skeptic about technology in the sense he was saying this shift is going to be hard to navigate and we really need to think about the impact on our inner lives. He came from a strong religious and philosophical tradition, and he really cared about the inner consciousness and how we manage that.

He said, for instance, that new communications devices have tended to put us into a narcissistic trance where we become so fascinated with ourselves — our own words, our own image — that we can’t pull ourselves  away from it, just like Narcissus in the myth. Don’t you see that happening every day? I’m thinking of people whose online persona becomes a fetish, the incessant curation of the self. McLuhan completely saw that coming.

Like any futurist, he wasn’t right about everything, even with some of his more popular ideas. Take his prediction about the global village. In my view, we’re not actually moving to a global village where we’re all living simultaneously in this one massive community of seven billion people, mutually visible to each other at all times. We’re realizing that life in such a place would be unmanageable, unpleasant. Humans actually like to be in smaller communities with people we’re really connected to, in authentic ways. So I think we are headed not toward a global village but a globe of villages. Yes, we’re all connected to each other in this very broad way across time zones, across continents, across civilizations, but in the end we’re all grounded in much smaller communities where we really know and trust people.

OR: Can the internet, in addition to providing this sense of connection, empower a darker side of people?

Powers: Absolutely. We’re seeing that every day, from cyber-bullying to the online spread of terrorist movements to presidential politics. In the Electome, we came up with a tool we called Tonar — like radar but for conversational tone. It can measure the civility of the online election conversation at any moment. And we have found civility really ebbs and flows.

The biggest spike, so far, for incivility was a period back in March when things got out of hand at a Trump rally in Chicago. In online conversation, people are comfortable saying really ugly things because they’re facing a screen rather than real person. There’s this ability to lash out and believe there will be no personal repercussions.

We have to begin to be more thoughtful about what it means to have a public self in this new environment. The most forward-looking people already know this and have realized, “I have to not just curate myself, in the sense of presentation and selling. I should have a self that is playing a constructive role in the world. When I say something and it resonates and echoes far out into the world, that’s my contribution to society and it should be positive.”

People who don’t think about that long-term are going to pay a price, not just socially but professionally and in myriad other ways. We live in a civilization, and incivility is by definintion against the very notion of civilization. That applies to digital society, and we’re just beginning to wake up to that.

OR: Children, and especially young children, don’t have good (or any) judgment about the complex, tech-adjunct social issues you’re outlining. Do you think we’re doing a good job of explaining these issues to them?

Powers: I have a catch-phrase for the trap we fell into in the early digital years, and some ways are still in. I call it “digital maximalism.” This is the assumption that the more connected you are through digital devices, the better. The more you dive into the screen life with your whole self, the happier and more fulfilled you’re going to be.

I argue that this simply isn’t true, and I lay out strategies for not just rethinking it, but adopting a personal philosophy that helps you live in a different way, so you’re not a slave to screen. The best way for a young person to question digital maximalism is to be part of a family or some other community in which people are actually thinking and talking about technology in a critical, humanistic way.

I’ve found the people who have the easiest time addressing these questions and finding positive solutions are those who are coming from some kind of a spiritual and/or philosophical tradition. This is a framework for asking the big questions stepping back from your own life and examining your actions. How do they fit into that framework? What’s the best way to live and thrive?

That’s a tall order for a young person, but it’s manageable if it’s part of the dinner-table conversation, if it’s embedded in the way teachers at school are managing the conversation about social life online.

There are schools that are addressing these questions in the classroom and that’s incredibly productive.

OR: At the beginning of Hamlet’s Blackberry, you tell a powerful anecdote about losing your phone and the sense of both fear and excitement it provided.  Can you talk about that — and about the resurgence of physical media we seem to be seeing?

Powers: I live in a small town on Cape Cod and at the time I was writing the book I had this boat. One day I was out in the boat and I had the phone in my pocket and something went wrong with the engine. I was bending over trying to fix the problem and I fell head-first into the water and my phone effectively drowned. I threw it back in the boat and I watched in horror as went through its death-throes.

I immediately went into a panic as I thought about all the valuable stuff that was on that phone. But as this unfolded, I was sitting in the middle of this big cove, and because I was phone-less there was nothing I could do except A) fix the engine and B) do a little thinking about the state I was in, a completely disconnected state.

It began to dawn on me, as I got my act together and began making my way back to shore, that this was a place I hadn’t been to in a long time, and it was actually a really good place to be. It was a place where we all have the potential to be — the place of being a self-sufficient person. I’m here, this is me, I can spend time with myself, get to know myself, ground myself back in my own experience and purpose, get back to that idea of why I’m here.

It took me back to a kind of self-help book that made a big impression on me when I was a teenager. It was called How To Be Your Own Best Friend. It was written by a married couple, both Freudian psychiatrists, and it was about their theory that real happiness in life begins with the ability to be alone and be happy. If you enjoy spending time with yourself, you’ll be better at connecting with others and finding your place in the world. Sitting there in the boat, I realized that in my own life, and in so many other people’s lives, this has been completely lost. That concept of the self as the essential building block of happiness — the self alone, the self-sufficient self, the happy self, the person who can be their own best friend.

That is what still troubles me today, despite my own fundamental optimism. I don’t think we have regained the power of that idea: we bring the most to our family lives, to our community lives, to our world and our work, if we can be happy with ourselves and in ourselves, and not dependent on external stimuli.

My great inspiration for this is the Stoics, and I get into this in my chapter about the Roman philosopher Seneca, one of the great Stoics. Self-sufficiency is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. They were also about acknowledging death as a presence in our life and remembering that every day. That’s one of the reasons the Stoics have such a dour reputation, but it’s actually a very life-embracing philosopy. This idea that I can be happy right here, right now, and I don’t need to be connected to 50,000 people on Facebook. I begin in my own spot right here, my little boat, as a whole self with its own integrity. And I can reach out from there with much greater strength and empathy.

OR: Do you see a long-term change in political norms brought on by the spread of technology?

Powers: I hesitate to make a prediction about that because it all feels so up-for-grabs. I don’t want to pretend to see that far into the future.

I do think the best analogy to what we’re living through now is a moment in late 17th- and early 18th-century Europe. Newspapers had been around for a while by this time, but they really began to have an impact in terms of social and political change when they began to be shared in this coffee-house culture that emerged in Europe at this time. The German social theorist Jürgen Habermas and others have written about this.

Coffee arrived in London. Some entrepreneurs had a great idea: “Let me set up a place where I can sell this popular drink and people will be able to sit around together and talk.” So people showed up and, while enjoying coffee, they talked and debated about the ideas and stories that were appearing in the early newspapers and journals. Soon there were hundreds of coffee houses in London, and people were mixing, class-wise, in these spaces as they had never done before. It was mostly men, but there were women in the coffeehouses. And together they began to ask questions like “Why do we have a king? Did you see that piece such-and-such wrote yesterday about the king? What did you think?” It was the beginning of this completely new version of civilization, democracy, that we are the heirs to. Nobody saw it coming and, remarkably, the ideas bubbled up partly in the coffeehouses — a simple idea that had profound consequences.

I think something like that is happening right now in the digital age. I just told the positive version of the story of the last several centuries. Obviously, it also had many dark chapters and ups and downs along the way. But I like to think now that we know enough about the past (and history is always my touchstone) to be able to take ourselves into this future in such a way that the long-term result is positive — that we are on a trajectory to a better world.