Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Hamlet's Blackberry" - Review & Analysis

William Powers' recent book, "Hamlet's Blackberry" attempts to answer the question of how to build a good life in the digital age.  For some more enlightened folks, perhaps this is a silly question.  For myself, I feel like the digital tools that make our lives easier also encourage a more shallow and surface-level existence.

Like myself and others, Powers is searching for depth.  The difference between himself and many other authors on the subject is that he recognizes how valuable and useful the new technology is.  "Hamlet's Blackberry" is a search for a way to take the good of the technology, including the ease of access to information, ability to keep in touch with family/friends, work remotely, etc., and discard the bad.  The bad in this case is the constant stream of news and trivia, much of which is not useful, the ADHD-inducing brain fuck that the internet can be at times.

Powers takes a very unique way of exploring the subject.  Rather than just look at modern examples, Powers looks back on breakthrough technologies throughout history, including written text, the printing press, and wired telegrams.  At the time of each of these inventions, people worried about the effect that they would have on learning, concentration, and most importantly, depth.  Reading quotes from people who lived through this, the concerns were very similar to what we hear today about being "too connected," "too in touch with the crowd," and "not enough time for the inner self."  Take for example Thoreau's concern that the more wired people become, the more likely they are to fill up their minds with junk and trivia, even celebrity gossip. 
"We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.  After all, the man whose horse trots a mile a minute does not carry the most important messages."
 The obvious follow-up here is that if everyone was worried about this stuff then, and it all turned out all right, why worry about the current technological advances?  Powers addresses this as part of his conclusion:
"One might argue that civilization always survives such transitions and moves on, so why worry?  Of course we'll survive.  The question is whether we will do more than that.  In all the earlier periods we've looked at, there were people who thrived and found happiness and people who didn't.  The former found something approximating the happy equilibrium Socrates was seeking when he prayed that his outward and inward selves might "be at one.:  The latter became hostage to their outwardness and never shook "restless energy of a hunted mind.""
 What then is the answer?  According to Powers, it comes down to creating distance, providing time for inner space, pushing for technologies that allow for inwardness, using old tools (such as handwriting) to ease digital overload, forming positive rituals, creating screen-free "Walden Zones," and consciously disconnecting, or "lowering our internal thermostat." 

What does the constant frittering between tasks, jumping from one screen to the next, and constantly interacting with people take from us?  In my opinion, the most poignant example is given in the first chapter.

Powers is driving to his mother's house, but gets a late start.  He needs to let her know that he will be late, so he picks up his mobile phone (a tool of interconnection in its own right), pulls her up on speed dial, notices the profile picture of her that he has on his phone, and lets her know that he will be arriving later than expected.  She laughs, as this is something of an inside joke, as apparently he is late often.  He hangs up.

Ill let Powers pick up here:
"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?"
 In the past (but not so long ago), this event would have been much more difficult.  Powers would have to pull the car over, look for a payphone, hope he had the correct change, and be sure he had his mother's number memorized.  Now, with a click of a button, he can do all of that.  Clear case of technology helping build on a relationship.  But something more was needed to create the depth of emotion that Powers experienced AFTER the call was over.  There was a gap between activities that allowed the author to consider what had just happened.  Rather than jumping immediately into the next twitter update or email, the fact that Powers was driving allowed distance between the act of calling and the deep reservoir of feeling that opened up as he thought about his mother.  In this case, technology helped created depth.

Rarely do we give ourselves these gaps.  We have too many screens open at once, too many email accounts to check, too many IM's coming in to stop and think and feel.  To live a good life requires depth, and to do so amidst so much distraction will require a conscious look at what we think about and how we spend our time.  William Powers' book, "Hamlet's Blackberry" is the single best resource that I have found to address how to create these all-important "gaps" in our lives.


Les Champs Elysees said...

So what's the proper balance?!

I get a kick out of couples dating, or families at Disneyland. They sit at their table staring into their phones and avoiding any real, tangible, deep conversation.. The families stroll through lines that would've been filled with conversation, fighting with brothers, taking in the moment, creating memories with your family... ect. Now they're filled with noses buried in cell phones, and head phone's crammed in their ears.

Venom said...

For me the proper balance is easy - no cell phone at all, much less a crackberry.
Less technology in my life makes it easier to enjoy the gentle pace of country life.

Though, I admit, a phone would've come in pretty handy when I was stuck out in the swamp...

linda said...

This is fantastic.
this has been one of my lessons this year. more down time. less internet time. i'm loving what it does for me. it makes me feel peaceful. sometimes once i'm home from work I don't even power up my laptop til the next morning at work.

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