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Do we really need to be "always connected"?

  • May 9, 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 for thought here, and Powers has me rethinking my nearly-always-on attitude.

Prologue: The Room
Part 1 - What Larks? - The Conundrum of the Connected Life: Busy, Very Busy - In a Digital World, Where's the Depth?; Hello, Mother - The Magic of Screens; Gone Overboard - Falling Out with the Connected Life; Solutions That Aren't - The Trouble with Not Really Meaning It
Part 2 - Beyond The Crowd - Teachings of the Seven Philosophers of Screens: Walking to Heaven - Plato Discovers Distance; The Spa of the Mind - Seneca on Inner Space; Little Mirrors - Gutenberg and the Business of Inwardness; Hamlet's Blackberry - Shakespeare on the Beauty of Old Tools; Inventing Your Life - Ben Franklin on Positive Rituals; The Walden Zone - Thoreau on Making the Home a Refuge; A Cooler Self - McLuhan and the Thermostat of Happiness
Part 3 - In Search of Depth - Ideas in Practice: Not So Busy - Practical Philosophies for Every Day; Disconnectopia - The Internet Sabbath
Afterword - Back to the Room; Acknowledgments; Notes; Further Reading

Powers makes the case, through the use of seven philosophers over the years, about how technology often leads us to become more shallow in our thinking and reasoning. We think this is a recent phenomenon, but it was a fear even back in the days of Socrates and Plato. The act of writing down speeches was thought to be the first step towards less thinking. Why work on memorization and deep thought if you can just read something? Shakespeare used a table, an erasable notebook of specially-treated paper or papyrus, that allowed him to write things down during the day and review them at a later time. Again, a use of technology that helped a person take in and deal with more mental stimuli and clutter. And with more input came less time to listen and reflect, more often giving in to the demand to deal with something immediately before the next thing showed up.

While we tend to think that no time in history has ever been as fast-paced as this, the reality is that each time period has had some level of turmoil and change that was significantly greater than the time before it. So our base problem isn't really new... it's just magnified. More things are going on, we have less time to reflect and contemplate matters, and we lose the ability to think deeply about issues that matter. We end up with sound bites and summaries that we buy into without thinking. To reverse this trend, Powers offers up the concept of an Internet "sabbath", or the conscious decision to go "off the grid" for a period of time. Without the constant bombardment of email, instant messages, tweets, etc., you can spend time reading and thinking... spend time talking with others and interacting with *real* people who matter to you. It's not necessarily easy, as it can be hard to make the decision to not try and keep up with everything that happened in the last 24 hours. But will it really matter if you don't see the latest YouTube video or read the latest blog post by a friend? Won't it still be around if it was really important?

I'll admit that I'm still struggling with the concepts in Hamlet's Blackberry. I know I spend far too much time online at the expense of other things that should get greater attention. But part of the solution is knowing you have a problem, and I think Powers at least got my attention. Well worth reading...

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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 . 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 …
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, …
About the reviewer
Thomas Duff ()
Thomas Duff, aka "Duffbert", is a long-time member of the Lotus community. He's primarily focused on the development side of the Notes/Domino environment, currently working for a large insurance … 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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