Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
© 2011 William Powers
Getting online used to require sitting in front of a computer terminal and waiting for it to dial in, oh so slowly. It was a choice to connect, one which required effort. But now the online world has expanded to encompass the real: we are constantly connected to it, and virtually nothing happens outside its context. If the online world is the web, we are flies trapped in its silken strings. We have not lost our mobility, however, but our peace of mind – and a certain richness of experience. But the internet is new yet, and our powerlessness is only temporary. We may yet adapt, and in Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers attempts to channel the wisdom of generations past, who likewise witnessed technological revolutions in the way they interacted with one another and information.
After an opening section that elaborates on the problems of hyperconnectivity, Powers turns to philosophy as the guide to the good life. This is not the philosophy of academics, the impotent discussions on how many Ideal Forms can dance on the head of a pin in Plato’s cave: this is philosophy as it was once practiced: an inquiry into life. To keep our head, we must live consciously, and this is emphasized throughout. Powers begins (naturally) with Socrates, who with his companion Phaedrus seeks respite from the noise and business of the city by going for a walk into the wild. Although putting distance between ourselves and distractions sounds nice, today it’s not necessarily practical: we’ve integrated digital connectivity into so much of the world that even wildernesses have wi-fi hot spots. More helpful is the second chapter, set in Rome, where Seneca’s Stoicism is touted as the key to a steady mind, and his practice of letter-writing as a means of focusing amid the clamor of the city. In Elizabethean England, Hamlet uses an erasable pad to organize his thoughts – overwhelmed by all of the information he and the world were beginning to experience during the scientific revolution. Benjamin Franklin is tapped as a mentor for self-growth, and in 19th century New England, Henry David Thoreau illustrates the value of establishing the home, at least, as a refuge. Last and possibly least-recognized is Marshall McLuhan, who led the way in analyzing how technology changes mental culture, and who here prompts readers to consider how much the use of a particular technology is going to expose them to unwanted distractions. To end, Powers examines ways he has pushed back against chronic connectivity in his own life, establishing ‘internet sabbaths’ where he and his family stay disconnected throughout the weekend. The result, he found, was astonishingly liberating and restful.
Powers’ work is essentially moderate; he advocates that people adapt to new technologies, instead of being dominated by them (as are most people these days) or simply rejecting them, as is my tendency. The premise of the work isn’t quite accurate (Thoreau and McLuhan are the only ones responding deliberately to a new technology), but Hamlet’s Blackberry is useful just for challenging the general attitude toward connectivity, namely that More is Better. Powers emphasizes the quality of experience, and his guides are largely helpful in pointing out ways to increase that quality. Definitely of interest to most readers.
One of my thoughts for the next year is to read a bit more focused forwards instead of focusing backwards so much…..
Something like this might be a gentle way of getting that off the ground.