Information overload, an age-old problem

Pile of cell phones

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: We've got our Blackberries and iPhones buzzing with e-mails from the office. Our laptops are packed with work projects and our iPods are full of our favorite podcasts. There is no escaping this beeping and ringing state of being. Or is there? That's the gist of William Powers new book "Hamlet's Blackberry." Will, it's good to have you here.

William Powers: Thank you Kai.

Ryssdal: You know, I would love to have a, you know, some fancy smart phone -- an iPhone, or an Android, or a Blackberry or whatever. But I know myself and I would be down in it all the time if I had one of those things. I would never get anything else done.

Powers: Yeah, I mean that's what I'm finding too in my life is, you know, the more connective a device is, the more addictive it is, the more stuff it's bringing to me, the more I want to be staring at it all the time. And I think it's become an enormous challenge not just in our personal lives but at work, people at work who are missing crucial e-mails that could have made all the difference in their business, because they were focused on too many gadgets at the same time.

Ryssdal: Is there an answer then, because you can't not be connected.

Powers: No, you can't not be connected. This is the future. This is where we're going to live. You know, our business lives, much of our personal lives are going to be conducted on these things, and I think it has enormous promise. We've already seen that. But I think we have to learn to organize it a little better and be smarter about how we use the devices.

Ryssdal: You know, picking up on that line you mentioned about this is the future, it's also the past. You've dug out some examples where this whole information overload thing is not new.

Powers: I sort of don't trust futurists. We tend to look to the future to tell us how we're going to live with the new technology. And they are so often wrong that I decided to take a sort of different approach and look at the past, and I go back to seven points in history when some new technology came along that really filled the world with new information all of the sudden, like today.

Ryssdal: Tell me about Seneca and the ancient ruins.

Powers: Yeah, Seneca was a very powerful Roman statesman, arguably the most powerful man in the Roman Empire for five to seven years. And he was also a philosopher, and he did a lot of writing on the side. And he found himself so over connected that he had to develop these strategies to get away from the crowd by himself and just have some sustained thoughts.

Ryssdal: Well, do tell, man, because we all need those rituals.

Powers: Right, well he did two things: One thing was he found that if he was in a very crowded situation in busy Rome he could really clear his mind by sitting down with a letter and writing a letter to one person. And he developed the same strategy with ideas. He would try to take one idea a day and set aside some time to focus on that one idea and sort of work it through.

Ryssdal: You actually give yourself just five digital days a week, right?

Powers: That's right. In my family, we do something we call the "Internet Sabbath," which has no religous meaning, it's completely secular. But on Friday night, we unplug the household modem which serves my computer, my wife's and our 12-year-old son's, and it's unplugged every weekend until Monday morning.

Ryssdal: Wow. I think that would kill me.

Powers: It killed us in the beginning. It was very, very hard. But the months went by, and it's amazing how when you get into a regular ritual like that and you really know why you're doing it, after a while, it not only sank in that we could do, this but it actually became incredibly appealing and effortless.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I don't know. I'll have to run this one by my wife and see what she has to say about it. But, you know company's do this too, right? You point out that Intel actually gives its workers some non-screen time?

Powers: Yes, what they've done is, they've tried all kinds of rituals. No e-mail Fridays, quiet time, all kinds of experiments in trying to figure out how to solve the problem of overloaded employees and this idea of people being unfocused and distracted in the workplace which is costing companies billions of dollars across the economy.

Ryssdal: William Powers, his new book is called, "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." Bill, thanks a lot for your time.

Powers: Thank you, Kai.

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