Monday, January 3, 2011

Hamlet Had a BlackBerry?

Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age

By William Powers.

HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010

Hardcover, 267pp., $24.99


Reviewed by Art Kane


In 2006, while a Fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, media & technology writer William Powers authored a Discussion Paper titled, Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal.

Powers' essay was a paean to paper, that remarkably versatile, tactile and enduring commodity invented by the Chinese in 105 A.D. and lauded by Powers as: "the most successful communications innovation of the last 2000 years, [and] the one…that has had the profoundest effect upon civilization." He went on to observe with dismay the increasingly precipitous departure of print from our daily lives, as evidenced primarily by the parlous situation of the newspaper. The page, he lamented, was being displaced by the screen.

That erosion subsequently accelerated as the Recession and its aftermath have seen scores of newspapers and magazines disappear from newsstands and mailboxes; albeit many were replaced —or augmented —by online editions. We are not, it would appear, seeing the end of journalism, as some have prognosticated, but, rather, the demise of paper as the primary conveyor of the written word.

Powers concluded his essay by casting a reportorial eye on Electronic Paper Displays (EPD), a technology then (and still) in development that underpins Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader, and similar devices. What intrigues is not so much the gee-whizness of the technology, but that its ultimate aim is to replicate paper as much as possible; i.e., to be portable, roll-able, foldable, and stick-it-in-your-pocket reader-friendly.

Four years and 267 pages later, the author brings us up to the present day with the publication of Hamlet's BlackBerry: a Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, in which he observes with equal — if not greater — dismay the degree to which the internet has taken over our lives. Unrelieved connectedness, advises Powers, changes
"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."

Powers is fortunate that he doesn't have to work in an office, where the audio-visual information bombardment can be relentless. But, even at home in Orleans where he writes, unmitigated connectedness can be pervasive. So, seeking the objective relief implicit in the book's title, he skillfully guides us through centuries of philosophical engagement with the age-old problem of the world being too much with us. From Plato on the principle of Distance, he goes on to Seneca on Inner Space, Ben Franklin on Positive Rituals, Thoreau on Walden Zones, and, finally, to McLuhan on Lowering the Inner Thermostat.

It is not possible in a brief review to capsulize the vast range of thought to which the author introduces us. Suffice it to say that he does indeed deliver on his title's promise. In his own personal life, Powers, his wife (author Martha Sherrill), and their son William have devised (and learned to live contentedly with) what they call the Internet Sabbath. Every Friday night, the Powers household modem is unplugged and stays that way until Monday morning. No Luddites they; the radio, the TV the DVR and the phone stay connected. It is only the Internet that spends its weekends in Coventry. To be sure, there lurks a suspicion in this reviewer's mind that, regardless of the disconnect, a certain amount of off-line electronic activity takes place. We are, after all, talking about a couple of writers.

As to that BlackBerry in the book's title, it seems that in Hamlet's time (or, at least, in Shakespeare's), those of princely means, education, and inclination were wont to carry on their persons a palm-sized "table" (think: tablet) of pages coated with a plaster-like material upon which they could inscribe with a stylus (and readily expunge) notes, drawings, calculations, and other jottings; a sort of medieval Etch-A-Sketch, or, if you will, a rudimentary PDA. Powers uses this device not only as a metaphor for any gadget that helps people to manage their daily lives, but as an example of the continued usefulness of old (and familiar) technologies that have been adapted into contemporary forms; to wit: his ever-at-hand Moleskine notebook that he finds far more accommodating to note-taking than a PDA. Why? Because it liberates him from the tyranny of the ever-glowing screen, while having the salutary attribute of being made out of that marvelous stuff, paper.


This review was commissioned by, and originally appeared in, The Barnstable Patriot, 8/20/10. Posted with permission.

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