Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age William Powers. Harper Collins, New York 2010
The first decade of the 21st century has realized instantaneous communications with almost anyone in the world on a level that was only a science fiction dream a few short decades ago. The Internet, and various applications for home computer, laptop, or cell phone have changed our life in many ways. This has led to many subtle and not so subtle changes in human interaction that affects society in ways that we barely understand.
Almost anyone in school, the workplace, or in everyday life has noticed how things are so “busy.” With e-mail and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, with You Tube, combined with video, audio, and incessant flashing ads, everything in this 24/7 world of the screen can easily become a distraction. This all leaves very little time for making real face to face contact in “real life” where even one’s “down time” is often spent checking e-mails from work.
Paradoxically, while many of these applications and services of communications technology have made life (questionably) easier and (questionably) more efficient, constantly being connected has taken a terrible toll on the human psyche in ways we barely understand. It many cases, built in distractions have become a near permanent fixture. Multi-tasking, which may be hazardous to one’s health and actually lead to less “efficiency,” has become the new norm. Communications technologies once seen as a convenience have often morphed into obligations. This often brings a sense of discontent and unease, increased stress, and a frustration of never being able to “get away” from it all. This is especially true for the professional or manager, who is likely to find that even on vacation on the deck of a cruise ship or at the resort beach, one is likely to find an hour or two spent on work, answering e-mails, or on Skype or cell phone with a client.
While this communications revolution has spawned articles on proper “technology etiquette” for users of cell phones and e-mail, there are no real guide books on how to survive this communications revolution and retain one’s sanity. However, William Powers provides in Hamlet’s Blackberry a few clues on how to survive this onslaught of never-ending electronic distraction. With a writing career from home that he could not do from Cape Cod without the Internet and e-mail, Powers offers some common sense guidelines on how to retain one’s “human touch” in an increasingly electronic world.
There have been previous changes in communication that have changed the ways that humans interact with one another. While these did not occur at the frenetic pace of the advances brought by the Internet, they were nonetheless revolutionary in their time. He reviews how various writers in different times reacted to the stresses of rapid changes in communication technologies. These include the development of writing (Plato), the transition from reading aloud in public to a more private reflective reading (Seneca), the development of the printing press (Gutenberg) and the subsequent transition from hand copied manuscripts to the printed book, pamphlet and newspaper (Shakespeare). The 18th century was a period of rapid scientific and political revolution (Franklin), while the 19th century brought us the telegraph (Thoreau) and telephone. In the 20th century, the pace quickened, with radio and television dominant for a while, evolving into even more rapid and revolutionary changes (McLuhan) brought by personal computers, the Internet, and cell phones.
There was often much resistance to these transforming changes in communication. The thinkers mentioned took a step back to assess these changes. They often embraced the new technologies, but realized that benefits came with risks, including an assault on solitude and great disruption of face-to-face human interaction.
The development of writing gradually transformed what had been a society based on the oral tradition, and Plato was writing on the cusp of this transition.
Socrates was among those who felt writing was dangerous, limiting the spontaneous flow of ideas as occurred in face-to-face conversation. But Plato’ dialog Phaedrus reveals how the written word on a scroll actually enhanced this exchange of ideas, though it was done by “disconnecting” from the crowds of Athens by taking a walk outside the city.
There are separate chapters on Seneca, emphasizing concentration to tune out the chaos, and on Gutenberg’s development of the printing press, greatly expanding the availability of books.
By the time of Shakespeare, printed books were quite common, yet handwriting (an older technology) had not disappeared. In Hamlet, there is reference to his “table.” This pocket-sized booklet with blank pages of a special parchment could be written on with a metal stylus, which after each use, could be erased with a damp sponge. This provided a means of making lists for immediate use or jotting down ideas to be reviewed later. For several hundred years, busy people used this “table” to better organize their time and thoughts. These tables filled the same purpose as the digital blackberry used today for essentially the same purposes, hence the name of the book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. So, an older technology of handwriting proved itself quite useful despite the increased popularity of the newer technology of printed books.
Variations of Hamlet’s Blackberry were used for several hundred years.
Benjamin Franklin used one during the rapid changes of the 18th century. He made a list of behavioral guidelines for attaining what he felt were virtues, such as frugality, industry, and moderation. Ritualistically referring to his table, he managed to limit distractions and remain focused. That this was fairly successful is verified by his many accomplishments in a wide variety of pursuits in journalism, science, inventions, and political thought.
Thoreau marched to a different drummer. He established his own private space, immortalized in Walden. Not a true hermit, he remained part of Concord society, but at a distance. He chose to not be terribly distracted by the developments of increased trains, one of which passed by the far side of Walden Pond, or the telegraph, which in 1852 truly began the electronic revolution of communications.
Over a century later, at the beginning of the age of the screen, Marshall McLuhan realized the subversive pull of the various electronic media on our psyche. His “the medium is the message” is often misunderstood, and his writings are often disjointed, difficult and dense. McLuhan felt that rather than being led by technology, one can take control of one’s life by controlling of one’s consciousness. Human freedom and happiness are more important than technology, and the individual still had choices.
This is the briefest of overviews of how these thinkers from different eras of rapid technological change dealt with the perceived threat of these technologies on the human factor. Powers pulls these various strands together and provides strategies for how these ideas can be applied to the modern world. While not a prescription, they are practical strategies that have worked for him.
Powers is no neo-Luddite, and he is not suggesting that we throw the computer or cell phone in the trash. Instead, we must strike a balance between the “on-line” world of social networks and constant connection with “real life.” Go out for an afternoon walk or bike ride, leaving the cell phone at home. . When flying, don’t pay for the “privilege” of Internet access. Choose instead to read a book or daydream. If planning a weekend getaway, look for accommodations without a “Wi-Fi” connection.
A key point is his suggestion of an a designated “Internet Sabbath.” Rearrange the house with certain areas “screen free.” Many people have lost the art of real conversation without electronic distractions. While it might seem ridiculous that we have to consciously make such an effort, he suggests inviting a friend for a “screen-free,” phone free, distraction-free, face-to-face conversation. His main point is to strike a balance between a connected “on-line” 24/7 lifestyle with its numerous distractions, and taking time off away from the screens.
Powers and his wife disconnect their Internet from Friday evening to Monday morning. Come Monday morning he is more appreciative of the good aspects of being connected for work, news, information or research. After a weekend spent in the real company of friends and family, interpersonal communications have improved, and stress is reduced. Powers strongly believes that such screen free times have greatly improved his quality of life and mental outlook on just what it is to be human.
Spending numerous hours daily gaming, texting hundreds of messages a day, or obsessively checking e-mail or Facebook pages fifteen times a day are all variations of screen (or Internet) addiction. Smart phones often suck us back into the maelstrom of the electronic world, taking us away from family or friends, breaking into moments of solitude. Powers puts all these distractions into perspective, based upon the experience of others dealing with rapid technological change. Striking a balance between technology’s lure and simply enjoying life is a challenge, but not insurmountable.
There are many benefits from this global communications revolution. There are also pitfalls of being “too connected.” The home computer, cell phone, smart phone, and numerous applications and devices that are almost certain to become more pervasive, are tools and our electronic servants. Powers rightly concludes that we should not become so obsessive compulsive in our relationship with these electronic gadgets and screens that they become our masters.