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.