Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

by William Powers
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Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers

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?"

At a time when we're all trying to make sense of our relentlessly connected lives, this revelatory book presents a bold new approach to the digital age. Part intellectual journey, part memoir, Hamlet's BlackBerry sets out to solve what William Powers calls the conundrum of connectedness. Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.

Hamlet's BlackBerry argues that we need a new way of thinking, an everyday philosophy for life with screens. To find it, Powers reaches into the past, uncovering a rich trove of ideas that have helped people manage and enjoy their connected lives for thousands of years. New technologies have always brought the mix of excitement and stress that we feel today. Drawing on some of history's most brilliant thinkers, from Plato to Shakespeare to Thoreau, he shows that digital connectedness serves us best when it's balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.

Using his own life as laboratory and object lesson, Powers demonstrates why this is the moment to revisit our relationship to screens and mobile technologies, and how profound the rewards of doing so can be. Lively, original, and entertaining, Hamlet's BlackBerry will challenge you to rethink your digital life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061687167
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/29/2010
Pages: 267
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

William Powers, a former staff writer for the Washington Post, has written about media, technology, and other subjects for a wide variety of publications, including the Atlantic, the New York Times, and McSweeney's. This book grew out of research he did as a fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. A two-time winner of the Arthur Rowse Award for media criticism, he lives on Cape Cod with his wife, author Martha Sherrill, and their son. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

Part I

What Larks?

The Conundrum of the Connected Life

Chapter One

Busy, Very Busy

In a Digital World, Where's the epth?

When I look around at how so many of us live today, staring into screens all the time, I think of my friend Marie. When I first met her in the mid-1990s, Marie was a recent immigrant to the United States and still learning the fine points of English. Back then, whenever I saw her and asked how she was doing, she would flash a big happy smile and say, "Busy, very busy!"

This was strange, partly because she said it so consistently and partly because her expression and upbeat tone didn't match her words. She seemed pleased, indeed ecstatic, to be reporting that she was so busy.

After a while, I figured out what was going on. Marie was copying what she'd heard Americans aying to one another over and over. Everyone talked so much about how busy they were, she thought it was a pleasantry, something that a person with good manners automatically said when a friend asked how they were doing. Instead of "Fine, thank you," you were supposed to say you were busy.

She was wrong, of course, as she eventually realized. But in another way she was absolutely right. "Busy, very busy" is exactly what we are most of the time. It's staggering how many balls we keep in the air each day and how few we drop. We're so busy, sometimes it seems as though busyness itself is the point.

What is the point, anyway? What's the goal at the bottom of all this juggling and rushing around? It's one of those questions you avoid thinking about because it's so hard to answer. When you start wondering about your own busyness, pretty soon you're pondering much deeper questions such as, Is this the kind of life I really want? From there it's just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? and Who am I?

Few of us are eager to take on such questions, and even if we were, who has time? We're all too busy! Besides, at bottom we think of our busyness not as a way of life we chose and are therefore responsible for but one imposed on us by forces beyond our control. In our minds, we're like an old Looney Tunes character who's walking along the street without a care in the world when suddenly an anvil falls on his head. While the cartoon anvil literally flattens Daffy Duck, ours crushes us in a different way. It's not our bodies that lie pinned beneath our busyness, it's our inner selves, those mysterious beings that live in and through our bodies, perceiving, thinking, and feeling life as it happens, moment by moment. We tend to think of life in outward terms, as a series of events that unfold in the physical world we all inhabit, as perceived through the senses. However, we experience those events inwardly, in our thoughts and feelings, and it's this interior version of the world, what one leading neuroscientist has dubbed the "movie-in-the-brain," that is reality for each of us. This part of our life goes by different names: mind, spirit, soul, self, psyche, consciousness. Whatever you call it, it's this essential "you" and "me" that's squirming under the burden of too much to do and think about.

"So what?" some might say. Life has always been an exhausting grind, and dealing with it is just part of being human. And there are people who seem to enjoy being extremely busy, with never a free moment. Perhaps the rest of us should be more like them, learn to see the upside of hectic. In short, all we really need is a change in attitude.

It's tricky generalizing about something as broad and subjective as the quality of our consciousness, but there is a problem with extreme busyness that attitude alone can't fix. When it comes to creating a happy, fulfilling interior life, a "moviein-the-brain" that makes you want to stand up and applaud, one factor matters ore than any other: depth. We all know what depth is, though it's hard to pin down precisely with words. It's the quality of awareness, feeling, or understanding that comes when we truly engage with some aspect of our life experience.

It can be anything at all-a person, a place, a thing, an idea, or a sensation. Everything that happens to us all day long, every sight and sound, every personal encounter, every thought that crosses our minds is a candidate for depth. We're constantly sifting among these options, deciding where to deploy our attention. Most float around in the periphery of our thoughts and remain there, but a select few wind up in the mental spotlight. We train our perceptual and cognitive resources on one conversation, one fascinating idea, one task to the exclusion of all others. This is where depth begins.

When you're driving your car and you come to a stop sign, you perceive the sign and its meaning, and you react to it. But beyond this automatic, almost mechanical act, you don't give the sign any special thought or consideration. It doesn't enter your interior world and take up residence. Like countless other ephemeral objects of your attention, it remains on the sidelines, a bit player.

Five minutes later, you arrive home and your dog comes bounding up to greet you. You bend down and scratch her behind the ears, and she licks your face in that delirious, sloppy way of hers. As you enjoy the licks and smell her familiar doggy smell, you wonder what kind of day she had here at home while you were out in the world. You pick up a stick and throw it, and as she bounds off to retrieve it, you laugh at the eager expression on her face. Interacting with the dog floods your consciousness with thoughts and feelings. Unlike the stop sign, the moment has richness and texture that you experience in all its fullness. You are there with your dog and no place else. The experience has depth.

It might seem that this is merely a function of the time you spend with the dog: the more time you give to an experience, the deeper you go. But it isn't that simple. A glance thrown across a crowded room can have more depth than a two-hour conversation. It's ultimately not a product of time or any other quantifiable attribute. Rather, it's about the inner life that a given experience takes on-its meaning. "It all depends," William James once wrote, "on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given."

We've all experienced this, and we know what it does for us. The moments we enjoy most as they unfold, and that we treasure long afterward, are the ones we experience most deeply. Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do. It's the essential ingredient of a good life and one of the qualities we admire most in others. Great artists, thinkers, and leaders all have an unusual capacity to be "grasped" by some idea or mission, an inner engagement that drives them to pursue a vision, undaunted by obstacles. Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr.- we call them "brilliant," as if it were pure intelligence that made them who they were. But what unites them is what they did with their intelligence, the depth they reached in their thinking and brought to bear in their work.

It's not only geniuses who possess this quality. There are ordinary people everywhere who, through sheer joyful engagement, seem to find depth in everything they do. This enviable talent can appear preternatural, like something you have to be born with. William James acknowledged that there are lucky individuals who are so alive to experience that they can find "inner significance" in a cloudy sky or the faces of strangers on a busy city street. He wondered if there's anything the rest of us can do to acquire this extraordinary kind of awareness. "How," he asked, "can one attain to the feeling of the vital significance of an experience, if one have it not to begin with?" James reached the same conclusion that many other philosophers down through the centuries have reached: every life has the potential to be lived deeply.

That potential is lost when your days are spread so thin, busyness itself is your true occupation. If every moment is a traffic jam, it's impossible to engage any experience with one's whole self. More and more, that's how we live. We're like so many pinballs bouncing around a world of blinking lights and buzzers. There's lots of movement and noise, but it doesn't add up to much.

Now and then it occurs to us that we could do better, reconfigure our commitments and schedules so they're not so crazy and we can breathe. But no sooner do we have this thought than we dismiss it as futile. The mad rush is the real world, we tell ourselves. We're resigned to it in the same grim way that people in repressive societies become resigned to their lack of freedom. Everyone lives like this, racing and skimming their way through their days. We didn't drop the anvil, and there's nothing we do about it except soldier on, make the best of it.

Though it is indeed the norm in our society to live this way, we're kidding ourselves when we deny responsibility for it. True, some of the activities and obligations that fill our hours aren't really a matter of choice. When the boss asks you to work overtime, you do it. When the mortgage bill is due, you sit down and pay it or else. Yet beyond these involuntary time eaters, we create a lot of our own busyness by taking on tasks that nobody requires us to do. Some of those optional pursuits are enjoyable and fulfilling, such as the hobbies and causes we care about and work hard on. And some are frivolous and pointless, such as the time we spend shopping for things we don't really need. Worthwhile or not, the point is that a great many of these busy-making activities are completely our own doing. We don't just choose them, we pursue them. In the last few decades, we've found a powerful new way to pursue more busyness: digital technology. Computers and smart phones are often pitched as solutions to our stressful, overextended lives. And in many ways they do make things easier, reducing the time and trouble it takes to communicate and perform important tasks. But at the same time, they link us more tightly to all the sources of our busyness. Our screens are conduits for everything that keeps us hopping-mandatory and optional, worthwhile and silly. If you have a mobile number, an Internet browser, and an e-mail address, endless people and organizations are within your reach. And you are within theirs.

We've adopted this way of life eagerly, both as individuals and as a society. For the last decade, we've worked hard to bring digital connectedness into every available corner of existence and, once it's there, to make it ever faster and more seamless. Dial-up connections gave way to high-speed broadband, which then became wireless and mobile. And we're always upgrading, looking for higher speeds, wider coverage. Meanwhile, within our connected lives we're continuously expanding the degree and intensity of our ties to others. Many of us have multiple inboxes and accounts, with ever-expanding lists of contacts. We sign up for the latest social and professional networks and join subgroups and circles within those networks. Even as the number of people we're connected to rises, so do the frequency and pace of our communications. When we were still emerging from the analog age and the technology was slower, days and weeks would go by when we didn't hear from a friend or family member. Today we're in touch by the hour, the minute. It wasn't so long ago that people who received two or three hundred e-mails a day were considered outrageously busy, figures of pity. Now they're mainstream. In terms of sheer quantity, the most connected are just a few years ahead of the rest of us. A news story about a young woman in California who racked up more than 300,000 text messages in a single month is a glimpse of where we're headed. "Sacramento Teen Says She's Popular," read the subheadline. What will be the definition of popularity a decade from now? The goal is no longer to be "in touch" but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch. To merge, to live simultaneously with everyone, sharing every moment, every perception, thought, and action via our screens. Even the places where we used to go to get away from the crowd and the burdens it imposes on us are now connected. The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you're walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you're carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along. A walk can still be a very pleasant experience, but it's a qualitatively different experience, simply because it's busier. The air is full of people. Someone you know has just seen a great movie. Someone else had an idle thought. There's been a suicide bombing in South Asia. Stocks soared today. Pop star has a painful secret. Someone has a new opinion. Someone is in a taxi. Please support this worthy cause. He needs that report from you-where is it? Someone wants you to join the discussion. A manhunt is on for the killers. Try this in bed. Someone's enjoying sorbet, mmmm. Your account is now overdue. Easy chicken pot pie. Here's a brilliant analysis. Latest vids from our African safari! Someone responded to your comment. Time's running out, apply now. This is my new hair. Just heard an awesome joke. Someone is working hard on his big project. They had their baby! Click here for the latest vote count . . .

It's flying so fast, we're always playing catch-up. The deeper we get into this way of life, the more I think my friend Marie's old mantra really could serve as the go-to greeting of the digital age. How are you? Busy, very busy.

Part of the problem is that we know from experience that busyness and depth are not mutually exclusive. We've all had moments when we were busy in a good way, pivoting nimbly from task to task, giving our all to the one that was in front of us at any given moment. This is how great surgeons work, performing numerous difficult procedures in a single day but serially, so that each gets full attention in its turn. Having a lot on one's plate imposes a certain discipline. There's truth in the old saying that that more you have to do, the more you get done.

Unfortunately, digital busyness usually doesn't work like surgery. Dozens of tasks jostle and compete for our attention on the screen, and both software and hardware are designed to make it easy to hop around. So easy, it's irresistible. The cursor never rests in one place for long, and neither does the mind. We're always clicking here, there, and everywhere. Thus, although we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that's the essence of true productivity. And the faster and more intense our connectedness becomes, the further we move away from that ideal. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.

Not everyone lives this way, of course. First there are millions in the United States and many more around the world who can't afford to buy these technologies and are shut out of their manifold benefits, except through the limited access afforded by public libraries and other institutions. This is a real problem that deserves more attention than it receives. Second are those who can afford the latest gadgets but choose instead to be lightly connected or not connected at all. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The trend and all the momentum are emphatically in the opposite direction. The global society to which we all belong is dramatically more connected than it was a decade ago, and becoming more so each day. This shift is affecting everyone, including those who are not fully participating in it.

This is not a small matter. It's a struggle that's taking place at the center of our lives. It's a struggle for the center of our lives, for control of how we think and feel. When you're scrambling all the time, that's what your inner life becomes: scrambled. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Do we really want a world in which everyone is staring at screens all the time, keeping one another busy? Is there a better way? To answer tough questions like these, we're trained to look outward, to studies and surveys that academics, pollsters, think tanks, government agencies, and others conduct on every imaginable aspect of our lives. In fact, there's a great deal of ongoing research about connective technologies and how they're affecting individuals, families, businesses, and society at large. New findings are released all the time and reported widely in the news media, where technology is a perennially hot topic: "Americans Spend Eight Hours a Day on Screens"; "Study: U.S. Loaded with Internet Addicts"; "Texting and

Driving Worse than Drinking and Driving." We read these headlines and shake our heads, not because they're telling us something we don't know but because we know it all too well. The reality of our connected lives is all around us. What these broad findings don't tell us is how to change it.



This book is about a yearning and a need. It's about finding a quiet, spacious place where the mind can wander free. We all know what that place feels like, and we used to know how to get there. But lately we're having trouble finding it. Like the people in the story you just read, we live in a world where everyone is connected to everyone else all the time. We're not literally in a room that's floated away from the earth, but we're definitely in a new place, and it's technology that has brought us here. Our room is the digital space, and we tap each other through our connected screens. Today we're always just a few taps away from millions of other people, from endless information and stimulation. Family and friends, work and play, news and ideas-sometimes it seems everything we care about has moved to the digital room. So we spend our days there, living in this new ultra-connected way. We've been at it for about a decade now, and it's been thrilling and rewarding in many ways. When the whole world is within easy reach, there's no end of things to see and do. Sometimes it feels like a kind of a paradise. However, there's a big asterisk to life in this amazing place. We've been doing our best to ignore it, but it won't go away. It comes down to this: We're all busier. Much, much busier. It's a lot of work managing all this connectedness. The e-mails, texts, and voicemails; the pokes, prods, and tweets; the alerts and comments; the links, tags, and posts; the photos and videos; the blogs and vlogs; the searches, downloads, uploads, files, and folders; feeds and filters; walls and widgets; tags and clouds; the usernames, passcodes, and access keys; pop-ups and banners; ringtones and vibrations. That's just a small sample of what we navigate each day in the room. By the time you read this there will be completely new modes of connecting that are all the rage. Our tools are fertile, constantly multiplying. As they do, so does our busyness. Little by little, our workdays grow more crowded. When you carry a mobile device, all things digital (and all people) are along for the ride. Home life is busier too. Much of what used to be called free time has been colonized by our myriad connective obligations, and so is no longer free.

It's easy to blame all this on the tools. Too easy. These tools are fantastically useful and enrich our lives in countless ways. Like all new technologies, they have flaws, but at bottom they can't make us busy until we make them busy first. We're the prime movers here. We're always connected because we're always connecting.

Beyond the sheer mental workload, our thoughts have acquired a new orientation. Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules. The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live. There's always been a conflict between the exterior, social self and the interior, private one. The struggle to reconcile them is central to the human experience, one of the great themes of philosophy, literature, and art. In our own lifetime, the balance has tilted decisively in one direction. We hear the voices of others, and are directed by those voices, rather than by our own. We don't turn inward as often or as easily as we used to. In one sense, the digital sphere is all about differentiating oneself from others. Anyone with a computer can have a blog now, and the possibilities for self-expression are endless. However, this expression takes place entirely within the digital crowd, which frames and defines it. This makes us more reactive, our thinking contingent on others. To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life. For a long time, there was an inclination to shrug all of this off as a mere transitional issue, a passing symptom of technological change. These are early days, we tell ourselves. Eventually, life will calm down and the inner self will revive. There's a basic wisdom in this hopeful view. It's never a good idea to buy into the dark fears of the techno-Cassandras, who generally turn out to be wrong. Human beings are skillful at figuring out the best uses for new tools. However, it can take a while. The future is full of promise, but we have to focus on the present, how we're living, thinking, and feeling right now. Like the two wayfarers in my story, a lot of us are feeling tapped out, hungry for some time away from the crowd. Life in the digital room would be saner and more fulfilling if we knew how to leave it now and then.

But can we leave? It's nice to imagine that there's a door somewhere and all you'd have to do is step through it and you'll be in a different place. A less connected place where time isn't so fugitive and the mind can slow down and be itself again. If someone told you that that place existed and he knew the way there, would you follow him?

What I'm proposing here is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.

The book begins with a brief look at the essential conundrum: Our screens perform countless valuable tasks for individuals and for businesses and other organizations. They deliver the world to us, bringing all kinds of convenience and pleasure. But as we connect more and more, they're changing the nature of everyday life, making it more frantic and rushed. And we're losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it's astounding that we're allowing this to happen.

We've effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let's face it, this is how we've been living.

There's an emerging recognition that this approach is causing us all kinds of problems. We sense it in our everyday lives-the constant need to check the screen, the inability to slow down our thoughts and focus. It's rampant at home, in school, and in the workplace. Various solutions have been proposed, ranging from behavioral regimens to software gadgets designed to help manage the flow of information. They haven't worked; the maximalist approach still rules.

What to do? Until recently, nobody has lived in a world of digital screens, so it would seem we are in uncharted territory. In fact, we're not. Human beings have been connecting across space and time, and using technology to do it, for thousands of years. And whenever new devices have emerged, they've presented the kinds of challenges we face today-busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control. These challenges were as real two millennia ago as they are today, and throughout history, people have been grappling with them and looking for creative ways to manage life in the crowd. We can learn a great deal from their experience and the practical ideas that emerged from it. Though this book opened with a futuristic allegory, its premise is that the best place to find a new philosophy for a digital world-the door to a saner, happier life-is in the past.

In part II, I look at seven key moments from history, eras much like our own in their great technological ferment and also great confusion. In each period, I focus on one thinker who was unusually thoughtful about the tools of the time, tools that in many cases are still in use today. Their names are well known-Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan-but their insights on this subject are less familiar.

Plato, for instance, shows that even in ancient Greece, people worried about what the latest technology was doing to their minds, and found ways to escape the crowd. Hamlet is one of literature's best-known characters, but you may not know that Shakespeare gave the Prince of Denmark a hot gadget, a handheld device that was as fashionable in Renaissance England as iPhones and BlackBerrys are today. The Seven Philosophers of Screens, as I call them, provide a tour of the technological past, focused on the human questions confronting us today. What do you do when your life has become too outward and crowd-driven? How to quiet the busy mind? For me, just knowing that these issues have come up so often before, under such different circumstances, is comforting and inspiring.

In the final part of the book, I offer guidelines for applying the lessons of the past, using real-world examples from today, along with a case study from my own life. The essential idea is simple: to lead happy, productive lives in a connected world, we need to master the art of disconnecting. Even in a world as thoroughly connected as ours, it's still possible to put some space between yourself and the crowd. Humans love to journey outward. The connective impulse is central to who we are. But it's the return trip, back to the self and the life around us, that gives our screen time value and meaning. Why shouldn't we aim for a world that serves both needs?

The room is feeling kind of crowded, don't you think? Let's get away from it all.

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Hamlet's BlackBerry 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
TIE3rd More than 1 year ago
C'mon, do you??? A well written, carefully thought out plan to lessen your daily digital workload. And truly, do you really need all that info? I thought so too. until I read Powers book. An eyeopener!!! A calming piece of gentle guidance in this overburdened digital world we now live in. Get a copy.
peakbagger06 More than 1 year ago
This is the book I have been looking for. It gives you permission to live life deeply away from the constant hum of the internet, email, twittering, blogging etc. Well written, well-researched look at technology through the ages. Who'd have thought that Ben Franklin, Socrates, Shakespeare struggled with over-connectedness with the technologies of their day. Powers tells us how they "pulled the plug" and got in touch with their inner selves to reflect, think deeply and be serene. A practical book, Powers gives some concrete examples of how to manage the gadgets of the 21st century so that you run them, they don't run us. Bravo, Mr. Powers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought this was to be about building a library on ones e book sibce i have about 400 archieved and 79 available plus an extra without a light with 300 plus thiught a general suggestion kist of complete works of would be given and what to be avoided as awful formating
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a somewhat breezily written book with lots of lessons from the author's life. Read Alone Together by Sherry Turkle for a much more profound discussion of this issue
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I don't normally read nonfiction, but this book really made me think about our culture and my own individual choices. It's refreshing to think that societies in the past have also had to adjust to new technologies and made it through unscathed! I'm passing this book around to everyone I know.
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