Monday, April 25, 2016

Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

William Powers opens his book with the lines, This book is about 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 are having trouble finding it.[i]
His book is a discussion about the rise of technology in our lives and the impact that it has had on us as individuals, and society as a whole.  While this concept is not new, he cites really interesting eras in history when humans were struggling with technology in society, just not what we would necessarily consider ‘technology’ today.
He discusses the impact (and perceived intrusion) when written language was beginning to take hold in Greece, which had been an oral society.  He reveals the criticism when the printing press was invented and made books much more accessible to people, which some felt drove them inward, and of which an Italian scholar wrote, “now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.[ii]  He likens Hamlet’s tablet to that of today’s Blackberry (ok, so the book was written in 2010) and he cites Benjamin Franklin’s development of his thirteen virtues as an historical example that we could draw from in order to render order to our chaotic lives and what he terms ‘digital-dependency issues.’
It is fascinating to see today’s technological issues framed in a historical context.  In the end, just about every one of us knows the issues – we are framed by our reliance on technology, but wonder, often aloud, whether the technology is making us more efficient and productive or simply more frenetic.  I do know, for one thing, that it has certainly made people less patient.  A 24-hour rule as a response time to a phone call or an email seems like eons to some in this day and age.
Powers frames this beautifully when he writes:
One largely unrecognized downside of computers and other digital devices in the workplace is that they keep everyone relentlessly focused outward, beyond themselves. For people stuck in cubicles all day hooked up to screens, this sends an unfortunate message.  The implication is that they’re just conduits for data, with nothing valuable to offer in themselves.  Obviously, in order to do their jobs effectively and contribute to their organizations, workers need information from the world at large.  But to turn that information into ideas and initiatives of real value, they must bring their own unique talents and insights to bear.  Rather than just aiming to modify employee behavior through e-mail prohibitions and the like, if companies focused on the thinking that drives the behavior, that alone would send a powerful message: what really matters is the untapped potential inside the employee, and the object of the ritual is to make the most of it.  Spending time away from screens will bring out the best in you.[iii]
            Powers then goes on to cite different ideas that companies have implemented such as Quiet Time (4 hour spans when email was shut down), No Email Day, technology-free weekends, and the like, with varying degrees of success.  He also goes on to make the point that screens are not inherently bad or evil, but a lack of proportion, or abandoning other interests as a result, is.  Like anything else, it’s important (and challenging for young people and parents alike) to find the right balance.
            He ends with; Technology makes the world feel smaller than it really is.  There are all kinds of rooms in all kinds of places.  Every space is what you make it.  But in the end, building a good life isn’t about where you are.  It’s about how you decide to think and live.  Place your finger on your temple and tap twice.  It’s all in there.[iv]

[i] Powers, p. 1
[ii] Powers, p.131
[iii] Powers, pp. 169-170
[iv] Powers, p. 240