Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age Paperback – Jul 21 2011
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“[An] elegant meditation on our obsessive connectivity and its effect on our brains and our very way of life.” (Laurie Winer, New York Times Book Review)
“Powers mounts a passionate but reasoned argument for ‘a happy balance’. . . . [He] is a lively, personable writer who seeks applicable lessons from great thinkers of the past. . . . Lucid, engaging prose and [a] thoughtful take on the joys of disconnectivity.” (Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor)
“A brilliant and thoughtful handbook for the Internet agewhy we have this screen addiction, its many perils, and some surprising remedies that can make your life better.” (Bob Woodward)
“In this delightfully accessible book, Powers asks the questions we all need to ask in this digitally driven time. And teaches us to answer them for ourselves.” (Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid)
“Benjamin Franklin would love this book. He knew the power of being connected, but also how this must be balanced by moments of reflection. William Powers offers a practical guide to Socrates’ path to the good life in which our outward and inward selves are at one.” (Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life)
“Always connected. Anytime. Anyplace. We know it’s a blessing, but we’re starting to notice that it’s also a curse. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers helps us understand what being ‘connected’ disconnects us from, and offers wise advice about what we can do about it…. A thoughtful, elegant, and moving book.” (Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less)
From the Back Cover
Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose a burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.
How to solve this problem? Hamlet’s BlackBerry argues that we just need a new way of thinking, an everyday philosophy for life with screens. William Powers sets out to solve what he calls the conundrum of connectedness. Reaching into the past—using his own life as laboratory and object lesson—he draws on some of history’s most brilliant thinkers, from Plato to Shakespeare to Thoreau, to demonstrate that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness. Lively, original, and entertaining, Hamlet’s BlackBerry will challenge you to rethink your digital life.See all Product Description
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
One cannot but admire the sheer amount of research and reflection that has shaped each chapter. The notions of distance (Plato), inner space (Seneca), "inwardness of technologies" (Gutenberg), embodied cognition and evolution of tools (Shakespeare), the power of positive rituals (Franklin), the need for Walden zones, and managing the quality of ones experience (inner thermostat - McLuhan) may seem disparate and disjointed to almost any reader. But Powers manages to convey a very powerful unifying theme, centered on an investigation of trying to characterize the impact of our gadget-centric life ("screens") by understanding how earlier generations have accommodated change. (while the investigation is mostly rooted in a philosophical framing, the underlying question of course is quite existential - how connected should we be?)
Powers' eagerness to impress upon us the craziness of our degree of connectedness to the "screens" and a constant reassurance that he is not against technology forces him to be repetitive at times. Despite the novel interpretations and arguments, Powers comes up short in addressing "what can one do to change behavior?". Nevertheless, Powers successfully sustains the reader's interest and curiosity (What can Plato or Shakespeare possibly know about Facebook-type connectivity?). The lucid interpretations of some of Philosophy's foundational work (Plato's Dialogs, for example) and a summary chapter highlighting the key Philosophy principles relevant to his arguments are alone worth the book.
Some themes are similar to those seen in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto - another excellent read. The reader may also benefit from a starker take on the impact of technology, particularly, the Internet in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Overall, this informative, entertaining, thought provoking book forced me to rethink my views on "connectedness" and how much it should (or not) mean to me. The "sacrifices" one has to make to read this book (less Tweeting, fewer status updates on Facebook or fewer Instant Messenger pings)- are all well worth it. A great read.
Join the club, my friend. I'm addicted and so are you. In a nutshell, author William Powers says we must use the internet, social networks, and cellphones to our advantage and resist becoming slaves to them.
Powers examines how we can be connected, without being too connected. Our addiction to being connected is robbing us of productivity and creativity. But we can't quit cold turkey, surely that would be just as bad, if it's even possible.
The book is quite entertaining and thought provoking, especially the end, where Powers outlines his own family's experiment in breaking away from the yoke of the internet. They use their laptops and smartphones during the week, but turn everything off on Friday night and leave it off until Monday morning. It's hard at first, but they are surprised at how quickly they adapt, and at how quickly their friends and colleagues adapt to their not being available every minute. They find that assignments and emails can almost always wait until Monday. They enjoy the time together as a family, and individually they get more done and manage their time better.
Powers uses history and philosophy to make his arguments and put things into perspective. 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. The pages could be sponged off like a slate and used over and over again. This was cutting edge technology in Shakespeare's time, a time before pencils and ballpoint pens were available.
The title originally comes from a long essay Powers wrote several years ago. In it, he looks at the evolution and future of paper. In this book, he's expanded the discussion to connectedness, which is why the book was to be titled Disconnectopia, but I think Hamlet's Blackberry is more inviting and memorable.
I was intrigued by the title "Hamlet's Blackberry" as I found it clever and hoped the rest of the book would be as clever. In my view, it is not. The author has written a book about how modern technology saps away the essence of life - a topic that appears with every new technology from books to TV to the Internet and now constant connectivity.
Unfortunately, Power's advice after more than 200 pages is simple - define a time to unplug! That's it. If you already know that you need to either set-aside time when you are not connected or you have the power to ignore interruptions until you complete a complex task, then you do not need to read this book. That is the reason behind the 2 stars.
I do not recommend this book as it appears to be written more for the author than for the reader. I know that comment sounds harsh, but here are my reasons.
* The book professes to be a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. It falls short of being a philosophy - more of an observation and directive to unplug periodically. The good life carries a lot of social baggage and I cannot support Power's assertion that just because you are connected, you will therefore live a diminished life.
* The book is repetitive, saying the same thing, sometimes almost letter for letter in various chapters. The consistent repetition across the book gives the impression that Power's wrote the book while being distracted/engaged in social media. Given the books premise and Power's credentials I would have expected a more thoughtfully constructed book.
* The answer to the book's premise is obvious, but the author feels that he needs to extend the discussion more than needed. This would have been a better monograph or article than a book. Its a perfect New Yorker article.
* The analysis basis for the book concentrates on personal observation and feeling. This book is a personal argument - a reflection rather than research. There is nothing wrong with that, but it would have been better positioned as a reflection.
* The book is preaching to the choir, people who read books are already able to do some form of blocking out time and creating space to create meaning. If Power's was trying to help people trapped in the cycle of connectivity, then he should push this through blogosphere as that is where the constantly connected wretched masses live.
* The discussions reflect Powers personal life that make the book seem more self absorbed that it probably is, but there is that appearance.
* There is a hint of elitism as well in the book as his choice of the terms "meaning" and "good life" is heavily loaded. While Power's recognize that being connected is part of modern work, he seems to think that people who can break away are somehow better than those that cannot or are able to manage.
There are some good parts to the book. The use of seven "philosophers" to describe how people have handled technology in the past was interesting, but more from an academic than an actionable point of view. Some of the characteristics of being overly connected are things that I can connect with - so to speak.
Overall, do not be drawn in by the clever title. If you are looking for a book about the human digital condition, you will need to go elsewhere in my opinion.
I am reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows right now and that may be a better book. I will post a comment on this review when I am finished. There seems to be a plethora of books coming out on this subject, which I guess is natural given that the Internet has been around for 20 years now.
The chapters that examine what these old thinkers wrote about technology, though, is only one of three parts in the book. The first part, I'm sorry to say, one can safely skip, or at least get away with only reading chapter 1. In this section, the author writes five chapters essentially saying the same thing: we've reached a point where our technology is partly controlling us. Each chapter offers examples from the author's life to show that he (and by presumption, all of us) have a love/hate relationship with technology. We love it because it allows us many choices, but hate it when we begin to feel dependent. Unfortunately, the author offers five chapters of this, each chapter pretty well resembling the last. If you read this book, feel free to skip chapters 2-5. You won't miss anything.
Part II is where the book get very interesting. The author devotes one chapter each to six thinkers - Plato, Seneca, Joseph Gutenberg, William Shakespeare (via Hamlet), Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall MacLuhan - regarding the respective communicative technologies emerging at the time. For Plato, for instance, it was the written scroll. Like many today, Plato feared that the ability to carry words with us will reduce the amount of "face time" we spend with others, for if one can receive the thoughts of others by something other than conversation, the mind will become lazier (not remembering what others say because one can read what they say later). For Thoreau, the dilemma was with the telegraph (among other things). Thoreau struggled to find a balance between the ability to be social with others and the ability to retreat into some degree of seclusion. (The author talks about the myth that Thoreau lived in seclusion, when in fact, Walden was a walk away from Cambridge, MA, and Thoreau frequently entertained guests).
While each thinker has a different lesson to teach (Seneca on how to focus in the face of distraction, Franklin on the importance of monitoring and disciplining oneself), part III ties everything together with the authors reflections. What does Powers want us to take away? It is simple really: the idea is that technology only controls us if we let it. By itself, it is not sentient and can force us to do nothing. We are truly its master and by keeping in mind the collective thoughts of the above thinkers, we can make sure it stays that way.
Overall, I found this book decent, if we discount part I which I found overly repetitive. It is interesting to read about how prior thinkers dealt with the communicative technology of their day, and it makes me appreciate how far we've come yet how much we're the same people we always were. I thought that the reflections in Part III were at once common-sensical (and in a way, pedestrian), but at the same time something that many people - myself at times - need to hear and re-hear. Powers has picked a worthy and pertinent subject and done a decent job with it.
The author describes in detail how our society has become digital driven in the first five chapters. Good info that we all know about and he gives personal examples. He then goes on to describe seven philosophers and how they escaped their 'driven' environments- taking a walk, actually talking with people! Essentially removing yourself from the day to day existence to provide another more fruitful place. William Powers than goes on to give us examples of how he and his family deal with his and their computer existence. The blackberry, researching with Google, cell phones, computers etc. They have a digital free weekend. Sounds interesting and then you wonder how could this work for me? Are we so necessary that we have to be on call to someone or something 24/7? Not unless you work in the White House. Lots of good lessons here on how to make our lives more satisfying in this digital age. It can work, if you want it to.
Have you ever been in the presence of someone and were having a conversation and they incessantly were texting on their phones, not really paying attention? If so, then give them this book when you finish reading. We all need a break and have a need to feel important. We seem to be losing touch with each other.
Recommended. prisrob 08-04-10
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