First of all, how can you NOT want to read a book called Hamlet’s BlackBerry? That has got to be one of the best book titles of all time.
Beyond its stellar title, however, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is a thought-provoking look at the role of technology in our lives and how we ought to deal with it so that technology is our tool rather than the other way around. Since reading and being convicted by the chapter on technology clutter in From Clutter to Clarity, I’ve been thinking more about how I use technology and how it uses me.
First, author and journalist William Powers defines some of the problems of our digital world. Although Powers is not a Luddite (he and his wife both work remotely from home which is only possible because of their internet connection) his research suggests that many people are suffering the effects of digital overload. Because we are always connected, we spend a lot of time on the busywork of managing our hyper-connectedness and trying to keep on top of the constant geyser of information we take in. Although we think of our screens as tools for productivity, they actually tend to undermine our productivity by keeping us from being able to focus on any one task or issue. We don’t have the time or mental space to really gain depth on any particular topic or to process and grapple with emotions and ideas on a deep level. We are constantly plugged in, but we often feel a lack of real engagement with others, and our relationships suffer from superficiality.
One problem I’ve noticed in myself regarding being online is my tendency toward being unproductive by clicking back and forth from one thing to another “just for a second.” Powers points out that psychological studies show that recovering focus takes 10 to 20 times the length of an interruption. So clicking over to your email real quick can cost you fifteen minutes of recovery time before you can really get your head back into your task at hand. That’s scary to me and is becoming scary to corporations whose bottom line is being affected by digital distraction and information overload. So what do we do about all this?
After defining the problem Powers looks at our own floundering in light of other eras in history when new inventions made it easier for people to connect. He looks at several different innovators and philosophers and how their societies wrestled with those new inventions in much the same way that our own society is dealing with how to handle new technology. While our own solutions will of course be tailored to our time and situation, it’s instructive to look at what worked and what didn’t in other points of history.
The thinkers and innovators Powers highlights are Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan. Their eras dealt with the movement from an oral tradition to writing, from reading corporately to reading individually, and from reading letters to receiving telegrams, among other things. I had never considered these figures in light of the technological advances of their societies, but Powers’ examination was instructive and shed a lot of light on our own grappling with technology.
As he delved into these eras, Powers kept tying the lessons learned back to our own time, which I found helpful. He asks good questions such as “Does your screen time help you think and work better? Does it deepen your ties to your friends?…How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think and feel? Is it changing the rhythms of my day?…Are these effects good or bad?”
If you spend most of your time pressing keys and managing electronic traffic, that’s what your life will be about. Maybe that makes you happy. If not, you have other options.
In the final section of the book, Powers lays out the practical philosophy he and his family worked out regarding their own connectivity. He says up front that he doesn’t consider this a blueprint for everyone, but rather an example and an inspiration for others to think of how they might best use technology in their own lives and situations. I found several of his points particularly helpful and was inspired to think through ways I might impose my own limits and structure to my connectivity to help myself be more peaceful and productive.
As you can doubtless surmise from this lengthy review, I really enjoyed this book. Although I disagree with some of the philosophies espoused and think most people will need to develop their own responses to technology in light of their unique circumstances, the attempt to work towards a philosophy of technology use is important and a worthwhile effort for all of us to make, both individually and corporately. I would highly recommend this book, and, due to the importance of the subject matter, I’ll probably add it to my top books for 2011.
If you made it this far, congratulations! Tell me, do you wrestle with the role technology plays in your life? What are some of the ways you manage screen time and being plugged in?
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