Mining Plato, Shakespeare, and Thoreau for tips on better living in the digital age.
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In Plato’s “Phaedrus,” a dialogue that takes place during a walk outside Athens, Powers finds an argument for the restorative powers of distance and conversation at a time when written language was threatening what had been an oral society. From Seneca, he gleans practical techniques grounded in Stoicism for tuning out chaos through the art of concentration and deep, narrowly focused thought.Skip to next paragraph
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Thoreau is a more obvious source of inspiration. When he retreated from Concord to Walden in 1845, two new inventions, the railroad and the telegraph, were transforming the world. Powers admires Thoreau’s willingness to escape, simplify, and disconnect in order to reestablish the paradigm of home as sanctuary.
In the title essay, Powers compares his own retro attachment to Moleskine notebooks to an erasable “table” referred to in “Hamlet.” The unhappy prince wipes away “all trivial fond records,” replacing them with a note about what his father’s ghost has told him about Claudius’s treachery. Thus Hamlet’s tabletlike device helps him focus “[i]n this distracted globe” on what’s most important: avenging his father. It’s an unorthodox, literal reading of a metaphor for how an obsession supersedes all prior concerns, but Powers milks this passage for the idea that old tools can help fight overload and “new technologies don’t always vanquish or supersede old ones.”
Powers’s personal solution to digital distraction is a “disconnectopia” or Internet Sabbath that involves turning off the family modem on weekends. This will no doubt strike some as obvious, others as unnecessarily draconian or untenably inconvenient. In a recent New York Times op-ed article, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker offers other common-sense strategies: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive.... The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your BlackBerry at dinner time....”
Despite Powers’s lucid, engaging prose and thoughtful take on the joys of disconnectivity, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” is bogged down by as many repetitions as a Google search. Could Powers have pared down his book to a long essay? You bet. Is it symptomatic of the disorder he’s describing – impatience born of years of Internet browsing – that I wish he had?I don’t think so. In this era of information overload, it’s important to go deep, but also to keep it crisp.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.