Mark’s #12 – Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life In the Digital Age by William Powers (288 pages)

If you’re like me, you love technology and all the latest digital gadgets… but you’ve also noticed some previously unexpected negative consequences of living on the cutting edge of technological expansion.  While it has been great to connect with your current friends, friends from years past, close and distant family members, as well as other peers, colleagues, and various businesses, the ever-increasing level of connectedness has begun to eat away at your life.   Add to this your favorite websites and news sources (espn.com for me), and hours from each day seem to vanish… as if they were never there.  Meanwhile, all the digital connectedness adds a level of stress and hurriedness that was not present a few years ago.  Now anyone of your hundreds of facebook friends can send you an email or post on your wall fully expecting a reply asap… If you resonate with any of this, you should read William Powers book Hamlet’s Blackberry.

In this book, Powers does a great job of showing both the benefits of our modern technology as well as the potential negatives for the quality of lives we lead.  Powers is not a technological luddite, he loves his smartphone, wifi, and laptop as much as anyone else.

This book is divided into three parts: In part one, Powers shows how we have embraced a very poor philosophy of technology.  Basically, we have become technological maximalists.  We assume, and the advertisements tell us, that the more you can be connected the better. However,  As we embrace more and more connectedness, we’re losing one thing that is very essential to living meaningful lives: depth.  In the busyness of technological engagement, both the hurriedness of it all and the mediums by which we engage promote shallow thinking, engagement, and relationships (think facebook, IMing, Twitter, etc.).

In part two, Powers takes a look a look back in history to learn from what he calls the “Seven Philosophers of Screens”.  This section really gives this book a lot of value and perspective on the issues at hand. Put briefly, here are the seven philosophers and the lessons learned from their lives or writings:

1. Plato – The Principle of Distance – Here Power’s recounts a story from the life of Socrates where the philosopher and a student take a walk outside of the busy connected life of the city of Athens in order to engage in some meaningful dialogue.

2. Seneca – The Principle of Inner Space – When physical distance is not possible, it is still possible to create internal distance by focusing one’s attention on one subject or one person at a time while blocking out all other distractions.  This can bee done through writing a friend a letter, or meeting someone for coffee with cell phones turned off.

3. Gutenberg – The Principle of Technological Inwardness – Here Powers shows how through the invention of the printing press, Gutenberg opened up the door for people to become inwardly focused through reading (previously reading was more a public event).  Likewise today, we can use even our laptops for inwardness as we focus on just one task at a time.  For example, consider closing all other windows and applications, as well as turning off your wifi while writing a paper or blog (as I am doing now).

4. Shakespeare – Old Tools Ease Overload – In one scene in the play Hamlet, Hamlet takes out a ‘table’ (think moleskin notepad) and writes something down to be remembered later.  This simple task of technological regression is becoming more and more popular today as people write on their moleskin notepads instead of using their smart phones.  Something simple and profound happens in our thinking and focus when we do this.

5. Ben Franklin – The Principle of Positive Rituals – Ben Franklin lived a very busy life, yet he was remarkable productive and successful in many areas of life.  Franklin attributed this to his developing of ‘positive rituals’ in his life.  Think of it as not only eliminating bad habits, but developing a set of good habits.

6. Thoreau – Principle of the Walden Zones – Just as Thoreau withdrew from the busyness of modern life for two years at Walden, we too should create different ‘zones’ in our homes for places of technological refuge.  This can be done either by location (certain rooms) or time (certain disconnected times such as weekends or mornings etc.).

7. McLuhan – The Principle of Monitoring the Inner Thermostat – McLuhan is known primarily for two catch-phrases: “the global village” and “The medium is the message.”   The overriding theme of McLuhan is that even though technological engagement is ubiquitous, we still have the ability and responsibility as human beings to think through our engagement of technology.  We are not robots.  We should own and use technology to advance our lives, not let technology own us.

In part three, the author suggests potential applications for his readers as well as giving examples from his own life and family of learning how to disconnect and reclaim our lives.

This book helped clarify and solidify much of my own growing dissatisfaction and concern with my level of technological engagement.  For starters, I’ve decided to go on a media fast each Monday (our family day off together), as well as discontinue my Facebook account.  If McLuhan was right, “the medium is the message”, then what’s the predominant message of Facebook? All too often I think Facebook’s message can be summed up by one word: narcissism.   I may return to facebook in the future, as I’ve already developed some of what Franklin called “positive rituals”, but for now I think I’ll try this experiment for a little and see how my life is affected.  In the short-term, I’ve already enjoyed more meaningful conversation with family and time reading books. Life is too short to flutter about in the shallows, I want to go deep.

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