Mining Plato, Shakespeare, and Thoreau for tips on better living in the digital age.
Concerns about the Internet’s harmful effects on our brains and lives have gone – well, viral. These days, click on any screen – or open any print publication – and chances are you’ll find something about how constant connectivity is fracturing our attention, addicting us to a steady stream of input, interfering with human contact, and destroying our ability to focus deeply. A recent front page headline in The New York Times screamed, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price: A Toll on Family Life, and Studies Find a Loss of Focus.”Skip to next paragraph
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William Powers, a former staff writer for The Washington Post whose focus is media and technology, became alarmed at how the omnipresent tug of smart phones and other devices was affecting his family life. Hamlet’s BlackBerry, his first book, is an extended meditation on what “digital maximalism” is doing to us, and what we can do to regain control.
Powers is no Luddite. He is as attached to his cellphone and as dependent on wireless Internet as the rest of us. “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” differs from recent books like Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by attempting to provide practical solutions to the conundrum of our conflicting impulses: our desire for maximum connectivity versus our need for time and space apart. Powers mounts a passionate but reasoned argument for “a happy balance.”
First, however, he highlights the all-too-familiar pitfalls of the “Too-Much-Information Age.” He goes all the way back to Plato and Seneca to make his case that “whenever new ways of connecting have emerged, they’ve always presented the kinds of challenges we face today – busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control.” With the Internet, we’re still in the adjustment period.
Like Alain de Botton, Powers is a lively, personable writer who seeks applicable lessons from great thinkers of the past. He calls his gurus the “Seven Philosophers of Screens”: in addition to Plato and Seneca, they include Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan. All of them, he claims, share our experience with the tug of war between crowd and self, outward and inward, medium and message.