Making the case for better balance in our digital lives
Do you sometimes feel like it is impossible to escape the endless notifications, social media updates and the general overload of information we navigate through every day? In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers makes the case for us to change our relationship with our devices, discusses lessons we should learn from “the seven philosophers of screens” and gives some practical tips on how we can adopt these in our lives.
The case for change
Powers begins with an ingenious representation of life in our networked world – a room where anyone can easily walk over to anyone else and tap them on the shoulder. They might tap for business or for pleasure, to ask you a question or a favour, or they might just be giving you information. Tapping goes on night and day; sometimes it can be exciting, sometimes it can be draining. But at some point, we’d like to take a break from the room. The question is how?
Powers refers to our current mode of thinking about new technology as ‘digital maximalism’. Which can basically be summed up as: If some connection is good, then more must be better. And likewise: If I am not connected, then I am missing out and that must be bad. His argument is not that we must abandon our screens and live life as a monk, but that we should examine our relationship with our technology more closely and find better ways to live with, and escape from, the crowd. He discusses these ways through who he calls “the seven philosophers of screens”.
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The Seven Philosophers of Screens
Socrates on finding distance
Powers discusses seven historical figures who at their point in history were affected by the evolution of communication technologies and the lessons we can learn from how they dealt with them. For example, Socrates, the great orator and philosopher, was apprehensive of the latest in communication technology at the time – written language. He believed it wouldn’t “allow ideas to flow freely and change in real time, the way they do in the mind during oral exchange”. Taking a walk outside the city walls with a pupil one day to escape the physical crowd, his companion produced a transcribed lecture he had attended. The two proceeded to have a thorough discourse on the merits of the lecture and written language itself. The new technology of the day was complemented and enhanced by them being alone outside the walls; escaping the crowd allowed them to better absorb and process the new information.
Applied to today’s new technologies, we are often bombarded with information, advertisements, notifications and a whole host of other interruptions. In order to give our own minds the ability to process and make sense of new information and decide what’s important, we need to find our own distance from the crowd – albeit this time the crowd is digital. The practical takeaway could be as simple as leaving your phone at home when running an errand or taking a walk without any screens.
Powers continues on to cover other important historical figures such as Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau and McLuhan.
The book is easy to read, well-written and presents an interesting topic that we all benefit from considering a little more. Hamlet's BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is available on Amazon and well worth a read.