Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
by William Powers
Reviewed by Shannon Roy
This is an unusual book; I don’t know what its fate will be. It is part history, part philosophy, part self-help. It is very readable and I enjoyed it a lot.
It isn’t really about technology. It is about the human drive toward greater connectedness and about how being connected confers great benefits, but also causes great strain. There have been a number of great connecting technologies in human history. But online social networking has connected people to an extent never seen before.
The age of digital social networking has been thrilling and wonderful in many ways. Our new connectivity has made our lives wider, richer, and easier. But our relentlessly connected lives have also placed a burden on us that we haven’t had time to adjust to.
A large part of the problem is simply time. People that are trying to have a rich life both offline and online are going to be very, very busy. People who are too busy for too long will find it hard to do their best work, to have happy relationships, or to have a high quality of life.
Theoretically, if we need to back off, we can back off. But the digital world really is alluring, seductive and yes, addictive. Besides, a lot of things HAVE to be done online. Controlling the online life can be done, and should be done, but it takes some thoughtful effort.
Powers uses seven examples from history to show that human beings have been enriched and overstrained by their connections for thousands of years.
Socrates greatly enjoyed his encounter with a written document in the Phaedrus, but he had real doubts about writing. He feared it would make human thought less flexible and creative. Plato, the much younger philospher who tells the story, didn’t really agree with him.
Powers shows the Roman philosopher Seneca using the most powerful connecting technology of his day, writing, to talk to a close friend, to share his ideas about the good life, and to achieve such total flow that he is unaware of the busy life around him.
The invention of the printing press was a giant leap in connecting technology. Print spread very quickly. Books were eagerly consumed as soon as they could be produced. But some people didn’t support the new technology. “Put ideas in the hands of the rabble, without guidance from their leaders? What a dumb and dangerous thing to do!”
One result of the print revolution was an explosion in writing. Print made people want to write. Hamlet’s “BlackBerry” was a pad of paper in his doublet, a place where he could capture his thoughts. This simple technology represented a huge shift in human thought. Powers suggests, only half humorously, that if Hamlet had spent more time with his “tables,” his story might have ended differently.
One of Powers’ repeated points is that a high-quality life in the digital age requires postive discipline. That is why Ben Franklin is part of this story. But to be fair to the lively, social Ben, he would never have proposed his puritanical regimen if he had not been suffering from a very bad case of Eighteenth Century over-connectedness.
Walden is a famous American story, but often misunderstood. Walden wasn’t remote. Thoreau wasn’t isolated. Far from being anti-social, he wanted his interactions to be deeply meaningful. He felt that the slight distance between Walden and Concord helped him achieve this. If Thoreau had never gone to Walden he might be less famous, but his prorities would have been the same. He was a man who valued a rich interior life far above worldly success. Powers suggests that people not only should, but can, have “Walden Zones.”
The final historical figure is Marshall McLuhan, who taught that it is technology and not just its content that changes individuals and societies. McLuhan never said that technology rules, or should rule. He did say that even in a busy, electronic world, each person can regulate the quality of the experience.
The last part is an account of how the author and his family succeeded in gaining some space free of the digital world and improved their quality of life. I don’t doubt that it is a useful and important part of the book, but it was the least interesting to me. As an introspective introvert who is hopelessly addicted to Gutenberg’s technology, I would be the first to admit I’m not connected enough. So when I make changes, they go the other way.
Introverts can be skilled and delighted consumers of technology. But, at some point, they will react to too much social networking the same way they react to too much social interaction: “Leave me alone!”
On the other hand, there are a great many people who are in total agreement with the idea that connectedness is good and disconnectedness is bad: “I love being connected in all directions. I wouldn’t dream of living any other way!”
The two extremes aren’t likely to have much understanding of each other’s world view. The people we should be talking to about this digital age dilemma are the ones in the middle. The ones who are appreciative of the benefits and aware of the problems. The ones who are enjoying the magic and feeling the strain.
Human beings have adapted to speech, writing, print, telegraphs, telephones, radio, television and computers. They have not had time to adapt to digital networking. Obviously, we are going to be connected. But how FAR should we be connected? How far CAN we be connected before we start to injure our work, our relationships, our health and our lives? “That,” as Hamlet would say, “is the question.”