William Powers’ new book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is part fun, philosophical musings and part how to “disconnect ourselves from digital overload.”
Unfortunately, Powers spends way too much time on the how to disconnect and not nearly enough on the philosophical musings. We all know how addicted too many of us our to our digital gadgets. If anything, it’s more difficult to get away from the dire warnings about how technology is ruining our lives, our relationships, our brains and turning everything but our thumbs tubby from lack of physical exercise. We do not need another treatise on that, but clearly we can use more of Powers’ witty, historical musings. Every review I’ve read notes how the reader picked up the book because he or she was intrigued by the title. Let’s be clear, the part of the title that appeals is to the left of the colon – “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” I have not read one review or spoken to one person who snatched up the book because it had such a gripping subtitle!
Yes, it is good to assess whether we might have reached a point where the technology that was supposed to give us greater control is actually controlling us. And to his credit, Powers is not pooh poohing all technology or saying that we should disconnect from everything. The best parts of this book are those where Powers demonstrates – through seven ancient and modern philosophers – how new technologies have provoked similar fears throughout history. Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare and Gutenberg, for example, struggled with new-found gadgets. Even Ben Franklin, that wizard of invention, we learn had his moments of doubt!
The “Hamlet’s Blackberry” (of the title) is what was called a writing table or table book and consisted of some plaster-covered pages bound in a pocket-sized book. A metal stylus came with it and was used to write down notes or lists. Shakespeare could sponge off the pages like a slate and use them over and over again.
Ahhh, but where for art thou, quill pen? Would the end have been as tragic if Romeo and Juliet had had cell phones? Worst of all, how many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces might we have lost, if the Bard could have erased them from his Elizabethan Blackberry?
This, I believe, is Powers’ message (overworked though it might be): there is a time to connect and a time to disconnect , and a reasonable person should know the difference.