Accidentally Spiritual

How I learned that the crisis of this age of distraction is a spiritual crisis.

In 2008, just as smartphones were going mainstream, I sat down to write a book questioning a sacred tenet of the digital revolution: The more time you spend connecting via digital screens, the better. It wasn’t the gadgets themselves that I opposed, it was the way we were using them — the 24/7 always-on life that, to me, looked increasingly like mass insanity.

Back then, everywhere you turned, the message was the same: The screen is where all the action is. You can’t be too connected.

Yet, from my own life, I knew this wasn’t true. I’m a big fan of technology, and have always been one of those people who like to play with the newest gadget. But as the revolution ramped up and my own connectedness grew more intense, I began to notice that I was paying a price. The more time I spent checking my inbox and updating my status, the less I saw of my wife and young son, and the less time I spent enjoying the world around me. The screen was devouring the rest of my life.

I also noticed that my mind was operating differently, in two ways. First, I was multi-tasking all through the day, increasingly unable to focus on just one thing at a time. Second, as I fielded all the incoming stimuli and kept tabs on the world at large, my thoughts were trained ever more outward. The inner life of reflection and imagination that I’d previously treasured had basically vanished. I couldn’t quiet my mind.

I wrote that the digital revolution had gone down a foolish path — but that this was actually a normal part of human history. In previous eras of rapid technological change, going all the way back to ancient times, people had also struggled with information overload. Seneca, the 1st-century Roman philosopher and politician, noted that his contemporaries suffered from what he called “the restless energy of a hunted mind.” Shakespeare, who lived through the print revolution, had his tragic hero Hamlet refer to his own head as “this distracted globe.”

I proposed that it was time to adopt a new digital philosophy, one that recognizes the value of not just connectedness but disconnectedness. We needed to slow down, rediscover focus and eye contact, balance screen time with real-world experiences. I shared a number of practices that I had adopted to achieve this new balance, including a family ritual that we called the Internet Sabbath. It was very simple: We unplugged from the internet on weekends. From bedtime Friday night through Monday morning, we were offline. When we started doing this, we’d never heard of anyone else who did it, and some of our friends considered it strange. But, I wrote, it did wonders for our digital addiction problem.

At one of my readings, a woman thanked me for writing the first book she’d ever encountered that viewed technology as a fundamentally spiritual question.

When the book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, came out in 2010, the publisher described it as a philosophical look at technology. And that was just how I saw it. I was trying to raise consciousness about what I perceived to be an urgent contemporary problem. Some bookstores put it in the Technology section, while others put it on the Sociology shelf. Both struck me as logical choices.

Then, as I started to give talks at bookstores and media interviews, something odd happened. People started asking me what had inspired me to write a spiritual book.

The first time I got this question, I was stunned. For the two years I’d worked on the project, I had never thought of it as a spiritual book.

To me, spiritual meant religious, as in tied to one’s beliefs about the origins of the universe, the supernatural and the existence of god. I grew up in an observant Roman Catholic family and went to a parochial high school. But by the time I graduated, I’d left the church and had never joined another religious group. I still occasionally read books of a spiritual bent, mostly a lot of Zen Buddhism. But my book wasn’t about spiritual matters. It was certainly not about god or the afterlife; it was a practical book about living happily and productively each day.

Yet the question kept coming up. At one of my readings, a woman thanked me for writing the first book she’d ever encountered that viewed technology as a fundamentally spiritual question. I started receiving emails from clergy of various denominations, asking me questions for sermons they were preparing about technology and the soul. A rabbi sent me a homily he’d delivered that quoted from Hamlet’s BlackBerry. Among other things, he wrote that although my family observed a Sabbath that began on Friday evening, as far as he could tell, I wasn’t Jewish.

When you’re a spiritual person, anything in your life, even your technologies, can take on spiritual significance.

I pondered my own failure to recognize that I’d written a spiritual book, which was apparently a very obvious fact. And I finally came up with the reason: Thanks to some combination of temperament and upbringing, I am a fundamentally spiritual person, but the qualities that make me spiritual had never struck me as special or unique. In my mind, I was only spiritual in the way everyone is spiritual. I assumed most people had a rich inner life that they cared about and nurtured, and that they were feeling as inwardly oppressed by tech overkill as I was. All they needed was a book that showed them a different way.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from this experience is that spirituality varies widely from person to person. Some have a naturally spiritual inclination that, like mine, is rooted in a combination of personality and upbringing, while others simply don’t. The former were those who tended to buy my book and come to my readings. The latter, not so much.

I’ve also learned that when you’re a spiritual person, anything in your life, even your technologies, can take on spiritual significance. After all, at its best, connecting is about taking your inner self out into the world and encountering other people’s inner selves. It’s about souls meeting souls. This doesn’t require a church, synagogue or mosque. It can even happen on a smartphone, if you know how to use it. 

William Powers
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  • Dan Holbrook

    Nice piece. David Nye, in his American Technological Sublime, argues in part that, well, Americans have imbued technologies with a certain spirituality – or tried to – citing the “interdependence of spiritual values and material development.” But amazement is not the same as wonder. The internet and the devices connected to it make this mistake, promise us wonder but deliver amazement (for which we heftily pay each month). The amazing wears off, and has to be constantly refreshed, which a large, truly highly skilled industry and people do, using, as Frank Zappa put it, “all the frightening little skills that science has made available.” But ultimately it’s not satisfying, spiritually. You caught on to this earlier than most, seems to me. You are correct, I think, that the sublime, the spiritual, can be found using your phone. Thousands if not millions of people create wonderful artifacts on line – words, pictures, movies, ideas – that can invoke the sublime, make you wonder, give you a piece of their soul. But you have to search consciously for those things. And the sublime is much easier to find right in your neighborhood, in your family, your colleagues, friends old and new. Or outdoors.

  • Kim Williams

    We often speak of spiritual as if it is separate or different from the other parts of our thinking and living. What you have described here is a coming to awareness that, in the process of living with an increasing measure of awareness and choice, we discover that our living is about spirituality. The recent surge of discussion in the the business community about Mindfulness would indicate a similar happening.

    “I’ve also learned that when you’re a spiritual person, anything in your life, even your technologies, can take on spiritual significance.”

    Well said.