Hamlet’s BlackBerry

Mining Plato, Shakespeare, and Thoreau for tips on better living in the digital age.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age By William Powers Harper 288 pp., $24.99

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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