Saturday, May 29, 2010

William Powers' "Hamlet's Blackberry": Book Review

How can we balance staying "in touch" without being overwhelmed by never being out of touch? Moving between the "alpha" of "less crowded, more focused" inner-directed concentration or "flow" in the moment, and the "omega" of being wired, linked, virtual, Powers surveys seven thinkers who dealt with their era's equivalents of "screens," our "connective digital devices" of the past two decades.

Plato writes down "Phaedrus," Socrates' orally delivered dialogue addressing the new technology of the scroll. This allowed distance from the physical speaker, and recollection that eased memory and boosted recall, paradoxically. Seneca called for "inner space" to deal with the resulting paperwork and information overload the Romans faced four hundred years later. His Stoic philosophy countered the noise that Seneca lived among. He proves an ancient predecessor of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" concept of being in the moment, immersed in one's craft. Powers ingeniously ties this to his own need for a jazz video enjoyed on You Tube free of Net distractions on or off that site, so he opts for the full-screen experience.

Gutenberg, I never knew, invented mass production first of mirrors. In the pilgrimage town of Aachen, tiny mirrors reflected images of the miraculous relics as they were hoisted before the crowds to gaze upon. Gutenberg then took the method of pressing sheets and made not glass but paper with movable type impressed. Books then could be manufactured cheaply. Reading turned away from a word being preached in public to a private activity silently enjoyed, inwardly.

This balance between public interaction and solitary enrichment, Powers stresses, can be found in Hamlet's "table of memory." These devices in Shakespeare’s time were portable like an iPhone or BlackBerry, but used for what the writer wanted to record. Powers compares these coated parchments, inscribed with a stylus and erasable with a sponge, to the Moleskine notebooks which inspire doodlers and scribblers today. This continuity of a traditional item into a changing realm represents "old tools" which well used can "fight overload" by helping us control the information that we slowly filter, the better to process.

Ben Franklin's "positive rituals" of temperate self-control that he kept track of, Powers suggests, resemble today's "no E-mail Fridays" a few workplaces follow. They show how people can take back their quiet time, and get more productive tasks done, freed from the distraction that online multitasking does to erode our concentration and diminish our effectiveness.

For Walden, Thoreau's experiment in simplicity anticipates a zone of quiet that can resist the "digital domiciles" that threaten us in future homes, walled in by screens. (I thought of Fahrenheit 451; oddly, Powers did not.) "Crowd Zones" could allow a plugged-in area, and "Walden Zones" could allow a refuge for contemplation in the same hi-tech house, he posits. Walden Pond, after all, was just over a mile from Concord town, and within sight of the railroad. Thoreau predicted that the telegraph would bring us news of "Princess Adelaide" with the "whooping cough," and as Powers shows, our supposed headlines every day show this having come to pass with breathless celebrity tweets.

Marshall McLuhan for all his convoluted prose reacted well to how the global village would surround us. Powers urges resistance, as did McLuhan, to the “Narcissus trance “ of “Gadget Lover. “ The "only way to cultivate a happy inner life is to spend time there," free of the seemingly innate craving for connectivity that the media and corporations and inventors wish us, of course, to satisfy, but it's a desire that can never be satiated, Powers reflects.

Better to disconnect, at least for an "Internet Sabbath." If we can "lower our inner thermostat," we can cool down our heated up demand for always being tapped in to our screens, as you and I are now as we share in our interest of Powers' book. This is a fast-paced book; I noted he shares the same easygoing accumulation of knowledge casually shared that made his wife Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" so enjoyable (reviewed: my blog entry). A few connections could have been tightened, as in the aside to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which appears long after the "Phaedrus" section where a parallel would have fit perfectly. Powers’ later chapters skirt the manner Facebook -- or for that matter PopMatters -- allows users to share information in the targeted ways among a small circle of friends which appear to meet his own needs for such a medium.

Subtitled "A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age," this does not call for renouncing these types of networks which we all benefit from. Still, Powers ends his brisk survey seeking a place inside where we can find retreat. He lives on Cape Cod, but his electronic leash can be as tight as any tying a Manhattanite to his or her half-dozen "screens." The only solution he has for escaping the constantly increased barrage of information we're tuned into? We have the power, Power reminds us, to turn it off for a while and recharge our soul. (Posted to Amazon US 5-29-10; submitted to

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