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Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age [Paperback]

William Powers

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Book Description

July 29 2011

“A brilliant and thoughtful handbook for the Internet age.” —Bob Woodward

“Incisive ... Refreshing ... Compelling.” —Publishers Weekly

A crisp, passionately argued answer to the question that everyone who’s grown dependent on digital devices is asking: Where’s the rest of my life? Hamlet’s BlackBerry challenges the widely held assumption that the more we connect through technology, the better. It’s time to strike a new balance, William Powers argues, and discover why it's also important to disconnect. Part memoir, part intellectual journey, the book draws on the technological past and great thinkers such as Shakespeare and Thoreau. “Connectedness” has been considered from an organizational and economic standpoint—from Here Comes Everybody to Wikinomics—but Powers examines it on a deep interpersonal, psychological, and emotional level. Readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Outliers will relish Hamlet’s BlackBerry.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (July 29 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061687170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061687174
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13.5 x 2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 227 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #141,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

“[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 age—why 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.


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  86 reviews
72 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Information overload - time for intervention June 1 2010
By Sreeram Ramakrishnan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
In this well-researched, thought-provoking book, Powers presents a sobering look at how we have let technology impact our views about the world and our relationship to it. Drawing parallels from paradigm-shifting events from the not-so-recent past (the written word in Plato's time, invention of the printing press), Powers employs some distilled (cherry-picked, one could argue) philosophical interpretations to define the current state ("digital maximism") and our evolving notions of connectedness (he argues that this evolution is mostly detrimental).

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.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Was Shakespeare an Early Adopter? June 5 2010
By takingadayoff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Do you check for email several times an hour? When you go to quickly look up something online, do you find that as long as you're there you may as well check the news, the stock market, and that blog you like? Do you get antsy if your smart phone is out of reach for more than a few minutes?

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.
76 of 91 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A detailed discussion of the problem with a simple solution June 15 2010
By Mark P. McDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
William Power's Hamlet's Blackberry laments the death of distance created by modern technology. The distance that Power's discusses is between events and the depth of meaning that distance brings by providing time for reflection and meaning. Power's contention is that our need to be constantly connected to our `screens' is sapping the opportunity for use to find meaning in our lives.

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.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Ideas for Living a Balanced Life June 14 2010
By W. A. Carpenter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
William Powers's book, Hamlet's Blackberry, examines the benefits and problems created by the increasing electronic connectedness created by PDAs, smart 'phones, and the Internet. Fortunately he offers some practical advice on finding the right balance between being connected electronically and being connected person-to-person.

He offers surprising insights from seven unlikely "Internet Philosophers" - Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan. This was probably the best part of this well-written book; Powers obviously did his research and thought deeply about the problem. His scholarship and insights really shine here.

Finally, Powers offers a number of practical suggestions and the really profound idea of an Internet Sabbath. Without minimizing the difficulties of observing this kind of Sabbath, he makes a very strong case for applying just this kind of mindful approach to the problem of ubiquitous access to the Internet. I would think that most people interested in this problem will be inspired by the author's example to give an Internet Sabbath a try - I was and started last weekend.
49 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If This Book Were Only Part II, It Would Be Quite Interesting June 13 2010
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Have we reached a point where the technology that was supposed to give us greater control is actually controlling us. I think everyone can attest to the fact that our lives are often busier and less focused now that we have e-mail, blackberries, ipads, etc. Straight off the bat, it should be noted that William Powers did not write Hamlet's Blackberry as a luddite who simply wants to bemoan these technologies. They are, he says, very advantageous and allow us to do very remarkable things. But like any new technology - and particularly any new communication technology - these upsides come with downsides. And while we like to think that we are in uncharted territory, the main point of this book is to show that ALL new communicative technologies - from the written scroll to the printing press to pocket notebooks - have provoked similar anxieties. Message: we are not alone. Plato, Joseph Gutenberg, Ben Franklin and the like have thought about many technology-related issues long before we got around to it.

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.
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