‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ is chicken soup for the digitally addicted soul

Hamlet’s Blackberry is for busy people who spend way too much time online. I’m one of them.

My son gave me the book for Father’s Day. As a 25-year-old digital native, he knows of my struggle to balance my digital and face-to-face lives. I’m way too dependent on my screens, and I don’t even have a smart phone!

Author William Powers has battled digital demons as well. As he relates his own experiences, you’ll see yourself. While digital connectedness improves our lives in so many ways, it also promotes a shorter attention span and lack of focus. It can rob us of the time we need to think deeply, to analyze, to assess, to create.

Most of us have yet to strike a balance.

For the always connected, the world resembles the fast lane of the Autobahn — an efficient and exhilarating trip, but lacking the richness of a slow drive in the country or a leisurely hike in the woods.

How to change it. If you’re seeking ways to better control an over-connected life, Powers can help you. In the last 25 pages of the book, he explains you how he reordered his own life by shutting off the Internet connection on weekends, designating “Walden Zones” in his home, and plenty more.

But resist the temptation jump ahead. Because the important stories and the real lessons of “Hamlet’s Blackberry” lie in Part II. If you skip Powers’ journey, the destination won’t make much sense.

William Powers

A new philosophy. “Hamlet’s Blackberry” can be a bit meandering at times. Philosophy is like that. But since Powers is a seasoned journalist and storyteller, his digressions are easy to access and insightful more often than not.

In Part II, Powers examines how some of civilization’s great thinkers have coped with disruptive technologies. Turns out, they each had something akin to a Blackberry.

He begins with the writings of Plato and the lessons of his teacher, Socrates. While there were no digital screens in 2,500 B.C., there was a new technology, something known as written language. Socrates was no fan of writing, viewing it as insular and one-dimensional. We know this, because Plato wrote it down.

From the writings of Plato and the experiences of Socrates, Powers shows us how distancing oneself from the crowd enhances our depth of thought and understanding.

Other great thinkers who wrestled with Blackberry-like demons were the Roman philosopher Seneca, adviser to a young Emperor Nero (before the whole fiddle thing), Guttenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan. In telling these stories, Powers helps us see that over-communication, and the distractions it creates, isn’t a new phenomenon.

Busy, busy, busy. Aren’t we all? But as Powers points out, that busyness is largely of our own making. Sure, the nature of 24-7 technologies means we can’t really “leave it at the office.” But much of the time we spend online isn’t really about work, is it?

We could blame our bosses, or the promoters of technology — Bill Gates for perpetual connectivity, or Research In Motion for giving us the Crackberry. But there’s nothing inherently bad about devices that provide instant access to valuable content. They’re helpful. Very helpful.

Like fine Congac, the problem lies in overuse and abuse.

I’m older than the typical Crackberry addict. I learned keyboard skills on a Royal manual typewriter, and I still don’t use the speed dial on my cell phone. So it shouldn’t surprise you that a this quote from Powers’ book caught my attention. It’s by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, from his commencement address at Penn in 2009.

Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us. Nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he walks his first steps.

That, my friends, is what being “connected” is all about. And it doesn’t require a screen.

Trust me. I’m a grandpa.

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Some other reviews:

The New York Times


The Wall Street Journal

7 thoughts on “‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ is chicken soup for the digitally addicted soul

  1. Techno-Hippy, eh?

    I spend most of my professional days balancing between dealing with a screen (and the person on the other end of it) and real, live people. Let me tell you that, in my experience, nothing replaces the organic human interaction…

    Gadgets certainly have their usefulness and their place, but they will never supercede the things they may have been intended to push aside.

    I download mp3s by the thousand, but I treasure my record collection. Never for a moment would I trade my computer for my vinyl copies. Nor would I put those recordings ahead of a live musical experience.

    If you are able to stay true to your own beliefs or philosophies or simply maintain order over your particular list of priorities, you won’t neccesarily be faced with a difficult dilemma. I cannot fathom a valid argument against human inter-connectedness. However, that inter-connectedness is not absolutely inherent to, or divorced from, our present technological abbilities or impetus towards false ‘computer friendships’.

    I, for one, will always connect with my ‘actual’ friends online and also make some marginal screen friends…none of those intractions will conflict with the other. My enemies will dislike me of theor own accord. My tendencies will always gravitate towrds friends…real…or imagined…

    My luddite tendencies conflict with my age. And I don’t really live up to my potential as a child of the technological age, either. Many of my generation (and those on either side) struggle with the same technological dilemmas. My advice remains the same as above…If you live by your own code, the technology you embrace will be of no more importance than the clothes you wear. (side note: if the clothes you wear are of supreme importance, my advice is no more sage than any other fashion guru’s)..most of us have some silly code we follow. That is ‘ok’ as long as it isn’t the most important thing you can think of.


  2. I spend far too much time online. I often have my laptop and PC running at the same time. Only the other week I pulled a 18 hour day. Well, I did choose of life of web, so I only have myself to blame. The funny thing is, when I went to University 12 years ago I had never used a computer. Those were the days when Alta Vista was king and Google was never even thought of….or maybe it was just a idea.

  3. I found Mr. Power’s book as I began working on “Our Hamlet,” a project that is focused on engaging the community in preparation for KSU’s production of the Shakespeare’s masterpiece in mid-April.

    William has actually been so kind as to exchange several e-mail messages. We’ve noted the relevance of his observations to the need I perceive to get people to actively engage in lifelong learning experiences that provide participants a greater depth of understanding and opportunity for philosophical reflection, free from the constant, interrupting (or should we find a new word…”innerrupting”) impact of hyper-connectivity.

    I hope you’ll join in this local investigation that has started to attract a national and international audience engaged actively in a truly compelling dialogue.

  4. Would love to learn more about that project, Hal.

    I’m expect one of the reasons we’ve not crossed paths in this little town of ours is that 95% of human interaction involves a screen. Bill Powers has helped me better understand my addiction, and I’m grateful for the ongoing dialogue I have with him — albeit all of it via email and Twitter!

    That may call for a hash tag: #ironic

  5. Pingback: The Power of Reflection (Part 2 of 2) « Steele Headed

  6. Interesting review of a book I overlooked on our reading list for the final project in your Social Media and PR course. I’ll have to read it, but I’m not so sure about turning off the Internet at home on weekends. How would I look up movie times? Like you, I learned touch-typing on a manual typewriter while in high school, and it was a big deal when I received as a gift for college an electric typewriter with special cartridges to make corrections. Now, I hardly go anywhere without my iPhone and my iPad. Connectedness can be both good and bad. Yesterday, a Monday, I was able to do a little holiday shopping in the middle of the day, when the crowds were fewer, while still keeping an eye on work email and taking a couple of calls. The curse was that I took the calls while trying to enjoy a walk across the Key Bridge in DC, on a lovely, sunny day, and I forgot to enjoy the scenery. That was a time I should have created my own Walden zone.

  7. K,

    Sorry this response took me so long. I must have have been occupied with my other screens :-) I feel your anxiety. Just last week I stole a day and went to the woods to sit in my tree stand (I’m an old Appalachian deer hunter). On a chilly and clear morning, I watched the sun rise to warm the hollow and the forest come to life, just as it does every morning — with or without me.

    But before noon came around, I has answered a dozen emails and took a call from a colleague. I could curse the invasion of technology on my Walden time. But it is, in part, that connectedness than enables me to escape to the woods more often. Now, if we could just get wifi in the hunting camp!

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