This book is about a yearning and a need. It’s about finding a quiet, spacious place where the mind can wander free. We all know what that place feels like, and we used to know how to get there. But lately we’re having trouble finding it.
Like the people in the story you just read, we live in a world where everyone is connected to everyone else all the time. We’re not literally in a room that’s floated away from the earth, but we’re definitely in a new place, and it’s technology that has brought us here. Our room is the digital space, and we tap each other through our connected screens. Today we’re always just a few taps away from millions of other people, from endless information and stimulation. Family and friends, work and play, news and ideas—sometimes it seems everything we care about has moved to the digital room. So we spend our days there, living in this new ultra-connected way.
We’ve been at it for about a decade now, and it’s been thrilling and rewarding in many ways. When the whole world is within easy reach, there’s no end of things to see and do. Sometimes it feels like a kind of a paradise.
However, there’s a big asterisk to life in this amazing place. We’ve been doing our best to ignore it, but it won’t go away. It comes down to this: We’re all busier. Much, much busier. It’s a lot of work managing all this connectedness. The e-mails, texts, and voicemails; the pokes, prods, and tweets; the alerts and comments; the links, tags, and posts; the photos and videos; the blogs and vlogs; the searches, downloads, uploads, files, and folders; feeds and filters; walls and widgets; tags and clouds; the usernames, passcodes, and access keys; pop-ups and banners; ringtones and vibrations. That’s just a small sample of what we navigate each day in the room. By the time you read this there will be completely new modes of connecting that are all the rage. Our tools are fertile, constantly multiplying.
As they do, so does our busyness. Little by little, our workdays grow more crowded. When you carry a mobile device, all things digital (and all people) are along for the ride. Home life is busier too. Much of what used to be called free time has been colonized by our myriad connective obligations, and so is no longer free.
It’s easy to blame all this on the tools. Too easy. These tools are fantastically useful and enrich our lives in countless ways. Like all new technologies, they have flaws, but at bottom they can’t make us busy until we make them busy first. We’re the prime movers here. We’re always connected because we’re always connecting.
Beyond the sheer mental workload, our thoughts have acquired a new orientation. Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules. The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live. There’s always been a conflict between the exterior, social self and the interior, private one. The struggle to reconcile them is central to the human experience, one of the great themes of philosophy, literature, and art. In our own lifetime, the balance has tilted decisively in one direction. We hear the voices of others, and are directed by those voices, rather than by our own. We don’t turn inward as often or as easily as we used to.
In one sense, the digital sphere is all about differentiating oneself from others. Anyone with a computer can have a blog now, and the possibilities for self-expression are endless. However, this expression takes place entirely within the digital crowd, which frames and defines it. This makes us more reactive, our thinking contingent on others. To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.
For a long time, there was an inclination to shrug all of this off as a mere transitional issue, a passing symptom of technological change. These are early days, we tell ourselves. Eventually, life will calm down and the inner self will revive. There’s a basic wisdom in this hopeful view. It’s never a good idea to buy into the dark fears of the techno-Cassandras, who generally turn out to be wrong. Human beings are skillful at figuring out the best uses for new tools. However, it can take a while. The future is full of promise, but we have to focus on the present, how we’re living, thinking, and feeling right now.
Like the two wayfarers in my story, a lot of us are feeling tapped out, hungry for some time away from the crowd. Life in the digital room would be saner and more fulfilling if we knew how to leave it now and then.
But can we leave? It’s nice to imagine that there’s a door somewhere and all you’d have to do is step through it and you’ll be in a different place. A less connected place where time isn’t so fugitive and the mind can slow down and be itself again. If someone told you that that place existed and he knew the way there, would you follow him?
What I’m proposing here is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.
Excerpted from Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. Copyright 2010 by William Powers. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.