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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Daniel J. Flynn
Unplugged
William Powers urges us to turn away from our computer screens.
16 July 2010

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers (Harper, 288 pp., $24.99)

The technology revolution, William Powers argues in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, isn’t so revolutionary. Man has been there, done that. One of the shibboleths of the Church of the Holy Screen is that iPhones, Twitter, and Kindle make our age unique, uncharted territory. These derivative technologies—essentially updates of telephones, telegraphs, and books—are strangely seen as without ancestor. But as Hamlet’s BlackBerry demonstrates in the first of several startling heresies, change in communications has always been a constant. Now is nothing new.

More heretical still is Powers’s chief prescription for twenty-first-century Americans: that they step back from their screens to live a more deeply human existence. This could mean leaving the cell phone behind when going out on a date, shutting down the wireless for the weekend, or connecting more with neighbors than with faceless usernames. But it doesn’t mean trading in the iPod for a Victrola or disdaining YouTube for old episodes of The Gong Show. Powers, a journalist covering technology and media who developed his book from a paper he gave as a fellow of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, is no Luddite; indeed, from his descriptions of his own connectedness, one gets the impression that he is a bit of a technophile. So his prescriptions may strike readers not caught up in technology as weak medicine. “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,” he writes. “The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.”

While conceding the obvious and much-discussed benefits of recent technological developments in communications, Powers takes pains to highlight overlooked and perhaps unforeseen drawbacks. Technology, he writes, has inspired “the kind of intense devotion and popular mania typically associated with political movements and religious crusades. For some people digital technology isn’t just a new kind of tool, it’s a revolutionary creed to believe in and live for, a movement that’s transforming and perfecting life on Earth. The Answer.” Consider recent news accounts describing how enthusiasts of the latest version of the iPhone camped out for days in front of electronics retailers. When they finally obtained the coveted device, they were met by cheering queues that treated them as conquering heroes.

Powers is skeptical about a world that toggles among multitudinous computer windows and screen operations. The digital revolution has transformed attention deficit disorder from a handicap to an asset, converting what earlier generations might have regarded as a lack of focus into “multitasking.” As Powers observes: “Geniuses are rare, but by using screens as we do now, constantly jumping around, we’re ensuring that all of us have fewer ingenious moments and bring less associative creativity to whatever kind of work we do.”

Another Powers heresy is his contention that unprecedented access to information hasn’t necessarily made us more informed. Screens have made knowledge more readily available and, paradoxically, more superficial. One is constantly confronted online with Google experts and Wikipedia wizards who offer rote knowledge gleaned from quick online searches without depth or context. This problem, too, has historical antecedents: in Seneca’s day, Powers reports, the Romans confronted “the great paradox of information: the more of it that’s available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way. So there was a tendency to graze, skim the surface, look for shortcuts.” But the Internet has magnified the problem enormously and changed the manner in which we absorb information and communicate. We speed-read, hoping to extract a few salient items rather than absorbing the text.

Powers charges that the tools capable of making us more productive often wind up distracting us. Similarly, the more “connected” we are through gadgets, the more disconnected we are from friends, family, and other human beings. “The rushed, careless quality of screen communication is of a piece with the discounting of physical togetherness,” Powers writes. “When everyone is endlessly available, all forms of human contact begin to seem less special and significant.” Think of the curt nature of e-mail; the stupidity of tweets; the use of text messaging to avoid dealing with other human beings; the lack of civility in anonymous blog postings.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry is the offspring of a stellar 2007 academic paper that tackled the more specific topic of the Internet’s challenge to newspapers and magazines. Powers’s book version unfortunately demonstrates how standout articles can result in pedestrian books. Padded with stale personal anecdotes about dropping a cell phone in the ocean, driving in search of an Internet connection, and writing on a Moleskin notebook, Hamlet’s BlackBerry surrounds a welcome thesis with surface-scratching referencing of famous texts, how-to advice, and digital-age curiosities such as the Sacramento teenager who accumulated 300,000 text messages in a single month.

Nevertheless, Powers is certainly on to something. In an age when “Facebook friends” don’t grasp that they are really just strangers, prescriptions like his will unfortunately go unheeded by those who need the medicine most.

Daniel J. Flynn, author of A Conservative History of the American Left, blogs at www.flynnfiles.com. He wrote this article on his HP netbook, used Gmail to send it to City Journal, and relied on Microsoft Word’s reviewing function to respond to the magazine’s edits.

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