Q&A with William Powers

Ben Kaufman
Editor-In-Chief

Q: You began your career in writing as a journalist for The Washington Post. How did you wind up writing about technology? 

A: I started at The [Washington] Post and then worked for a number of magazines. I became basically a journalist who writes about the media–a media critic. I realized around the turn of the century that the devices themselves were becoming more important than the content of journalism. I realized that the digital revolution was the big story. I got a fellowship out of the blue at Harvard in 2006 for a semester–very open-ended–and I could write about any topic I wanted. I decided to write about a little piece of the digital revolution which fascinated me: the claim that print is about to become obsolete.

I wrote an essay arguing that paper as a media is not going to go away. That was a controversial thing to say amidst the digital revolution, so I got some attention for that and I was on National Public Radio, and this led to publishers asking me if I wanted to write a book.

 

Q: How did you go about writing the book?

A: I feel like we spent the first few decades of the digital era living by a stupid philosophy that I called ‘digital maximalism,’ where the more connected you are, the better. I think that’s a dumb way to live and run a society because the more ways we get connected by these devices, the more we get fractured and divided into slim slices and never go into deeper conversations with our focus and relationships. It is something that everyone is talking about now, but in 2006 nobody was talking about it.

My family invented a ritual to leave behind our ‘here and now’ called the ‘internet Sabbath,’ where every weekend, my family would unplug from the internet completely. We didn’t know anyone else was thinking of doing this, we just made it up.

 

Q: Was it hard to break away from the digital world?

A: In the beginning it was so hard that it was comical. The first few weekends we felt like we were stranded on an alien planet. It was like an existential crisis because the internet was removed. It was tears and frustration and panic. That told my wife and me that we were really on to something and that we needed to do this because we had become so codependent. After about two months, we eased into it, and at the very end of the day we unplugged, and it became very natural. It became our identity, like we were that family.

It got to the point where a few weekends in the first year, it was Monday morning and we realized that we forgot to unplug. But we never bothered to look. We stopped the habit of making our way to our screens because we stopped that habit. The ritual ended two years ago, but because we did that for five years, we all now have our personal rituals, like I stay offline on Saturdays and some days during the week. It’s a little bit of a risk; you know you could miss something, but often is something truly urgent?

 

Q: Do you think that in the future the dependence on technology will get better or worse?

A: I’m really an optimist; I think that we’re just in the early stages of this. I think we’re going to look back at these times and realize how primitive these devices are because they are going to involve. Newer applications don’t feel that way because we are learning.

 

Q: You’ve seen technology usage in other countries, how do they compare to the United States in dependence to technology?

A: We’re not the most digitally addicted. Most famously is South Korea. South Korea is really intensely into gaming, so much so that there are internet addiction centers all over the country. I’ve also heard that Australia has the highest capita use of Facebook than any other country. We’re not the most extreme, but we’re also leading the revolution. The inventions are almost all ours. So in that sense, we are defining the future, even if we are not the biggest users of technology, which means that we have a big responsibility that we need to be thoughtful about.

This interview was edited for length.

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