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How to disconnect wisely from hi-tech overload

  • May 29, 2010
How can we balance staying "in touch" without being overwhelmed by never being out of touch? Moving between the "alpha" of "less crowded, more focused" inner-directed concentration or "flow" in the moment, and the "omega" of being wired, linked, virtual, Powers surveys seven thinkers who dealt with their era's equivalents of "screens," our "connective digital devices" of the past two decades.

Plato writes down "Phaedrus," Socrates orally delivered dialogue addressing the new technology of the scroll. Ths allowed distance from the physical speaker, and recollection that eased memory and boosted recall, paradoxically. Seneca called for "inner space" to deal with the resulting paperwork and information overload the Romans faced four hundred years later. His Stoic philosophy countered the noise that Seneca lived among, an early predecessor of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" concept of being in the moment, immersed in one's craft. Powers ingeniously ties this to his need for a jazz video enjoyed on You Tube free of Net distractions on or off that site, so he opts for the full-screen experience.

Gutenberg, I never knew, invented mass production first of mirrors. In the pilgrimage town of Aachen, tiny mirrors reflected images of the miraculous relics as they were hoisted before the crowds to gaze upon. Gutenberg then took the method of pressing sheets and made not glass but paper with movable type impressed; books then could be manufactured cheaply, reading turned away from a word being preached in public to a private activity silently enjoyed, inwardly.

This balance between public interaction and solitary enrichment, Powers stresses, can be found in Hamlet's "table of memory." Portable like an iPhone or BlackBerry, but used for what the writer wanted to record. Powers compares these coated parchments, inscribed with a stylus and erasable with a sponge, to the Moleskine notebooks handwritten in which inspire writers and scribblers today. This represents "old tools" which well used can "fight overload" by helping us control the information that we slowly filter and process.

Franklin's "positive rituals" of temperate self-control that he kept track of, Powers suggests, resemble today's "no E-mail Fridays" a few workplaces follow. They show how people can take back their quiet time, and get more productive tasks done, freed from the distraction that online multitasking does to erode our concentration and diminish our effectiveness.

For Walden, Thoreau's experiment in simplicity anticipates a zone of quiet that can resist the "digital domiciles" that threaten as future homes, walled in by screens. (I thought of "Fahrenheit 451;" oddly Powers did not.) "Crowd Zones" could allow a plugged-in area, and "Walden Zones" could allow a refuge for contemplation in the same hi-tech house, he posits. Walden Pond, after all, was just over a mile from Concord town, and within sight of the railroad. Thoreau predicted that the telegraph would bring us news of "Princess Adelaide" with the "whooping cough," and as Powers shows, our supposed headlines every day show this having come to pass with endless celebrity updates.

Marshall McLuhan for all its convoluted prose reacted well to how the global village would surround us. Powers urges resistance, as did McLuhan, to the Narcissus trance of Gadget Lover. The "only way to cultivate a happy inner life is to spend time there," free of the seemingly innate craving for connectivity that the media and corporations and inventors wish us, of course, to satisfy, but it's a desire that can never be satiated, Powers reflects.

Better to disconnect, at least for an "Internet Sabbath." If we can "lower our inner thermostat," we can cool down our heated up demand for always being tapped in to our screens, as you and I are now as we share in our interest of Powers' book. This is a fast-paced book; I noted he shares the same easygoing accumulation of knowledge casually shared that made his wife Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" so enjoyable (see my review). A few connections could have been tightened, as in the aside to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which appears long after the "Phaedrus" section where I had thought a parallel would have fit perfectly; in the same way, his later chapters skirt the manner Facebook allows users to share information in the targeted ways among a small circle of friends which appear to meet Powers' own call for such a medium.

Powers does not call for renouncing these types of networks which we all benefit from, but he ends his brisk survey seeking a place inside where we can find retreat. He lives on Cape Cod, but his electronic leash can be as tight as any tying a Manhattanite to his or her half-dozen "screens." The only solution he has for escaping the constantly increased barrage of information we're tuned into? We have the power, Power reminds us, to turn it off for a while and recharge our soul.

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More Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practic... reviews
review by . May 09, 2011
For some of us, living our lives connected to the digital world is a normal occurrence. I can reach anyone at any time, and others can reach me. But is that healthy? Should I step back and take the time to be unplugged? These questions are explored in William Powers' book Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. I joke about the fact that I can leave the Internet any time I want... I just don't want to yet. But there's some good food …
review by . April 24, 2011
Everywhere you turn, you hear someone ask "How are you?" Usually, the response is some variation of "Busy, very busy." It is so prevalent that an anecdote in Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is a real eye opener. A recent immigrant to the United States heard it so often, it was assumed to be a proper reply to the question. Living in the Digital Age, you are connected all the time; you have a screen in front of you nearly …
review by . October 12, 2010
I was going to simply say that I get much of the same message I found in "Hamlet's Blackberry" from several of the blogs I read, but maybe that could be seen as missing the point. If you need a book reference or two instead, how about Everett Bogue's The Art of Being Minimalist: How to Stop Consuming and Start Living or Leo Babauta's forthcoming print and e-book "Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction." The point is that author William Powers' essential recommendation -- unplug! …
review by . July 29, 2010
William Powers believes that the billion or so of us who are networked via digital devices are so mindlessly addicted to the experience that we need a game plan for escape. He depicts us as so absorbed in our instant gratification that we have abandoned the depth of experience and relationships that give life meaning.    One can't avoid the impression that he must be the sort of person who compulsively answers the phone when it rings, responds to e-mails no matter how puerile, …
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John L. Murphy ()
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Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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Our discombobulated Internet Age could learn important new tricks from some very old thinkers, according to this incisive critique of online life and its discontents. Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth. In a nifty and refreshing turn, he looks to ideas of the past for remedies to this hyper-modern predicament: to Plato, who analyzed the transition from the ancient technology of talking to the cutting-edge gadgetry of written scrolls; to Shakespeare, who gave Hamlet the latest in Elizabethan information apps, an erasable notebook; to Thoreau, who carved out solitary spaces amid the press of telegraphs and railroads. The author sometimes lapses into mysticism—In solitude we meet not just ourselves but all other selves—and his solutions, like the weekend-long Internet Sabbaths he and his wife decreed for their family, are small-bore. But Powers deftly blends an appreciation of the advantages of information technology and a shrewd assessment of its pitfalls into a compelling call to disconnect.(July)
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ISBN-10: 0061687162
ISBN-13: 978-0061687167
Author: William Powers
Genre: Computers & Internet, Science, Nonfiction
Publisher: Harper
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