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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