Chosen Futures
  • Connected to What?

    January 16, 2012

    I still remember the phone number of my best friend when I was growing up, but I don’t know my husband’s cell phone number. Of course his number is in my phone, so I don’t need to remember it, but I also don’t have occasion to learn it by repeated dialing. Is this a gain or a loss? In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age (HarperCollins, 2010), William Powers brings the wisdom of an eclectic group of thinkers to the plusses and minuses of living in an age of increasing connectedness.

    The book’s title refers to the “tables” Hamlet uses in Act 1, Scene 5 to write down what he has heard from his father’s ghost. We moderns take no notice of this moment; we are used to keeping notes and reminders on pocket-size gadgets. Elizabethan theater-goers, on the other hand, would have recognized these writing tables as a popular new means of coping with the information overload of their time. Powers points out that these newfangled tables actually incorporated two much older inventions, wax tablets and handwriting, and he reminds us that new technology does not necessarily make old technology obsolete. His own favorite handheld device is a Moleskine® notebook, which warms up much faster than any electronic device and offers few distractions from the observation he wants to capture right now.

    Socrates and Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan are the mixed group of advisors Powers surveys. The common theme is connectedness, especially how people in previous times of rapid, even chaotic change coped, grumbled, and experimented with new technologies of connection from writing (which Socrates distrusted) to modern media. Powers argues that it often took a generation or two for a society to incorporate a new technology so it would effectively help human beings connect with each without becoming overwhelmed by all the information coming their way. He gives examples of early adopters and proto-luddite skeptics in relation to writing, international mail (in Roman times), printing, railroads, the telegraph, and the increasing speed and density of cities from ancient Athens to the present day.

    Powers argues that we 21st Century humans can be happier and more productive by making choices about how and when to connect with the breadth of information and potential relationships in the world and when to go deep into actual relationship, including relationship with ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. He describes his own family’s choice to turn off their modem on Friday nights and leave it off until Monday morning and the positive results not only in shared family activities but in clearer thinking and greater creativity. His suggestions remind us that we don’t have to wait a generation or two to come up with solutions to our modern (electronic) servant problem, we can thoughtfully choose our own definition of a good life and take steps to live it now.

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  • Wild Voices

    October 20, 2010

    The parrots are wild, free, and noisy.  I usually hear them first, and then I look up to see them wheeling across the sky, calling to each other as they fly.  Is their conversation simply practical?  “I know where to find good berries.  Take a right.”  Are they keeping in touch, chattering about not much in order to let everyone know they’re still with the flock?  That’s probably the truth, but I prefer to believe they are happy, calling out about the sheer pleasure of flying, of being alive, of being together.

    They don’t exactly belong here.  There are no parrots native to San Francisco, but there are now breeding flocks here.  The original birds escaped or were freed, discovered they could do fine here, and they have made themselves at home.  Apparently they have even developed their own San Francisco parrot dialect, so the chatter I hear is distinctive and local.  They feed mostly on non-native plants, and they nest in non-native trees, all of which have been introduced by humans who migrated and settled here.  Parrots have fewer natural enemies here than in their home territories, but the young are certainly vulnerable to the local hawks.

    The first parrots may have been inadvertent immigrants.  By now they have become part of the fabric of this colorful and unpredictable city.  In a sense, we are all also inadvertent immigrants in the unpredictable world we now inhabit.  We live with uncertainty about the economy, about climate change and agriculture, about the safety and reliability of many products of our scientific and technological discoveries.  Too many of us feel isolated, dependent on our own slender resources and savvy, afraid to think too much about the future because we don’t know how we will find our way in this strange landscape.

    The parrots are not isolated.  I don’t believe I have ever seen a lone parrot.  Sometimes when I hear them, I look up and see only two or three parrots.  More often there are groups of five or eight or ten; every now and then I see as many as thirty.  At that point they are hard to count, flying too fast for my eyes to single out each one, but also making the count irrelevant.  They are many, they are together, and together they make an impact.  They make enough noise so I have to pay attention, but they are unconcerned about my opinion of them, attending to what matters to parrots.

    People are not parrots, but we also need our flocks.  The parallels are obvious, yet they bear repeating:  We humans also need each other – certainly for survival, but also because life offers much more pleasure with companions.  We too need to attend to what matters most to us, making noise as we go about our lives, commenting on what we observe, attracting attention from others who may choose to join us.  And we can be surprisingly adaptable, creating new versions of the good life in circumstances we never expected to live in.  The more unfamiliar the territory, the more we need kindred spirits as flying companions.

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  • Reality: Hard Facts or Creative Ideas?

    May 22, 2009

    “I have to be realistic,” always gets my attention. I know I’m about to hear someone’s beliefs about what’s possible or impossible. I’m about to learn a lot about that person, but I’m not going to learn what’s real. What people usually mean by “reality” is “here are some limitations I’m assuming are part of the universe.”  Then they go on to describe what they believe is economically feasible or what they believe other people can respect. We don’t usually put it that way, of course, and we don’t usually notice that we are describing not some “reality” out there but our own idiosyncratic perspective on the world. The fact is (see, here comes a belief), we notice what we have learned to notice. That means we can also learn to notice things differently, to create new realities for ourselves, new paradigms of what is possible and of what is wise. More and more people now recognize that we need new paradigms, new beliefs, new realities.  And that’s a good thing.

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© 2020 Deborah Gavrin Frangquist, Chosen Futures