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Stop … and reap rewards of technology

SmartphoneThe creative, emotional and spiritual potential of digital tools is very real – but only if we make the time to take a break in between multi-tasking, writes William Powers.

13 December 2010

I’m in my car driving to my mother’s house. She lives about two hours from me and close to one of those small-city airports where it’s easy to park out front, the lines are short, and the security people are friendly.

When I travel for work, I try to book my flights out of that airport and I get to visit my mother on both ends of the trip. This time I’m catching an evening flight, and she’s cooking dinner.

As usual, I got a late start and won’t be arriving anywhere near the time she’s expecting me, so I need to call her to say I’ll be late. I wait for a stretch of empty highway where it feels safe to look away for a few seconds. I open my mobile phone and hit the 4 key, which is programmed with her home number.

A photo of my mother appears on the screen, a head-and-shoulders shot that I took months ago with the phone’s camera. I later selected it as her ID photo, so it comes up automatically when I call her or she calls me.

I really like this image of her, and I contemplate it for a moment before putting the phone to my ear. She’s wearing a pink-and-white-striped sweater and looking up at the lens with a certain cat-that-swallowed-the-canary expression she always gets just before bursting into a laugh. She laughs a lot, so this is a characteristic look for her. In other words, the photo captures something essential about my mother.

When she answers, I tell her I’m on my way but running a little behind. She chuckles knowingly. We’ve had this conversation so many times, it’s Kabuki now and we both know our parts. She says she’ll hold dinner and why don’t I call again when I’m twenty minutes away? I agree to do this and tell her I can’t wait to see her. We sign off.

I take the phone from my ear, glance again at the photo, then hit “END” and watch it disappear. Driving along, I feel an unexpected surge of emotion. I’m thinking about how fun it always is to spend time with my mother, how lucky I was to be born to such a warm, companionable person.

Lately I’ve noticed shades of her humor in my son, and I wonder now if he somehow inherited that from her. Have they isolated a gene for good-naturedness?

As the minutes pass and I drive along, these thoughts about my mother flow into new ones. In my consciousness, the smile from the photo merges with the pine woods on either side of the highway and the jazz playing on the radio, beamed down from a satellite miles above the earth.

Memories rise up out of nowhere and flit around me in the car. They’re not specific memories of particular events but rather scenes in which I see my mother doing normal, habitual things. In the video archive of the mind, these would be the generic clips I’ve filed under “Mom.”

There she is walking across a lawn. Sitting under a beach umbrella with a book. Talking to someone at a party. Holding her sides as she breaks up over a funny story. For a while, the car is a floating cloud of filial affection and, well, joy.

It’s extraordinary, this feeling of time out of time. Everything dreary and confusing about my quotidian life has dropped away. I’m not the rushed, cornered, inadequate creature I often feel like. I’m absorbed in these memories, which seem to come from a place both beyond me and deep inside me, as if far and near, outward and inward, have come together in a new harmony.

My mother and I are no longer connected in the literal sense, as we were minutes earlier. Yet I’m feeling a connection to her that is stronger than the one we had when we were actually chatting.

Even as I enjoy this, I find myself thinking about the tool that engendered it, the unprepossessing, low-end clamshell-style phone now sitting dormant in the cupholder. How did it do that?

Digital devices can and do make this happen. We use them to nurture relationships, to feed our emotional, social, and spiritual hungers, to think creatively and express ourselves.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, at their best, they produce the kinds of moments that make life rewarding and worth living. If you’ve ever written an e-mail straight from the heart, watched a video that you couldn’t stop thinking about, or read an online essay that changed how you think about the world, you know this is true.

In this particular case, it all happened because of a simple phone call. But notice that it happened after what we typically think of as the connection, the call itself, was over.

There was a gap between the practical task and the deeper experience that followed. If that gap had not been there, would I have reaped the same benefits? Doubtful. If I’d kept on using the phone for other tasks, there wouldn’t have been time or space in my thoughts for the moment to unfold as it did.

The same goes for any screen task with the potential for deeper impact and value, and many do have that potential—it could happen, but only if you give it room.

We don’t know about those lost opportunities, of course, because they never see the light of day. But I think we miss them, nonetheless, whenever it occurs to us that life isn’t quite hanging together, isn’t adding up to what it might be.

It’s all those unrealized epiphanies, insights, and joys—journeys the mind and heart never get to take.

If you’re sitting in the office zipping from e-mail to e-mail to text to web page to buzzing mobile and back again—that is, doing the usual digital dance—you’re likely losing all kinds of opportunities to reach the depth I’m talking about.

An e-mail from a client requesting an innovative improvement in the product you sell might inspire you to draw up a brief sketch of how to make it happen. Heck, you might be motivated to go home and do it yourself and perhaps start your own company selling this superior product, taking on your current employer and shaking up the whole market. It could change your life.

But if you never pause to allow that thought to blossom and instead move on to the next tiny screen task and then the next and the next, guess what? No new life for you.

The gap in time between my call to Mom and the “payoff” it yielded is tremendously significant. It’s the essential link between the utilitarian side of the digital experience and the “vital significance” side.

And it’s a link that’s completely overlooked in current thinking about technology, with its unexamined faith in nonstop connectedness.

This is not to say the technology industry ignores the deeper potential of these gadgets. To the contrary, it advertises it, literally, because it’s crucial to the appeal of the products. If they did only menial jobs, we would view them roughly the way we view our vacuum cleaners.

Instead, we think of them as friends, muses, passports to higher realms, and that’s how they’re marketed.

A few years ago, there was an arresting television commercial for what was then the most fashionable mobile device, Apple’s first iPhone. A gorgeous young woman was shown standing by herself against a simple black backdrop, holding the sleek wedge in her hand. A dancer with the New York City Ballet, she talked about how she used it to mobileblog about her art from backstage during performances.

“It’s multitasking,” she said perkily. “It’s important. Even for ballet dancers.”

Now, Apple could have cast any attractive, articulate multitasker in the commercial. But the ballerina spun the message in a very particular way. This tool, she suggested, isn’t just for utilitarian drudgery. It’s for the artist and the spiritual seeker in each of us. For the soul.

The creative potential of digital tools is very real, and it’s manifest in the exuberant, richly inventive culture that has grown up online in a relatively short time, perhaps best exemplified by all the playful new additions to our language, from Googling to tweets.

This imaginative and inspirational dimension of screen life is as relevant to organizations as to individuals. Whether you’re running a small business, a university, a hospital, or a global conglomerate, there’s nothing more valuable than an employee with a fertile, creative mind.

Witness the countless business management articles and books about how to “think outside the box,” make conceptual leaps, tap the right side of the brain, discover hidden strengths.

Under the best circumstances, digital screens can help us do all these things. That is the other reason, beyond pure efficiency, why they are essential tools of every modern organization. They bring out the inner ballerina in us all.

But here’s the question: if the ballerina is using her smart phone for serious multitasking – not just doing the blog but jumping among many other tasks at the same time, racing from this to that and back to this again – is she really tapping her inner muse, as the ad implies? Is she using the tool to optimal effect?

HamletsBlackBerryThis is an edited extract from Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. Published by Scribe and reproduced here with permission of the publisher.

William Powers is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, has written about media, technology, and other subjects for a wide variety of publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s.

This book grew out of research he did as a fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. A two-time winner of the Arthur Rowse Award for media criticism, he lives on Cape Cod with his wife, author Martha Sherrill, and their son. This is his first book.

For more information, visit William Powers’ website.


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