June 2010, Wall Street Journal
A catastrophic event unfolds. A seemingly healthy professional embarks on his daily commute, only to come to the frightening realization that his battered and beloved BlackBerry lies vulnerable and unused in a distant corner of his home. An unwholesome panic descends. No matter how far away from home he is, and no matter how needless the device may be in a practical sense, he is impelled to hightail it back to his house and reconnect with the world.
William Powers offers this beleaguered man (me), and everyone else who has faced a similar ordeal, a roadmap to contentment in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” a rewarding guide to finding a “quiet” and “spacious” place “where the mind can wander free.”
Based on the author’s much-discussed 2006 National Journal essay, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal” (and how I wish that were true), the former Washington Post staff writer argues that the distractions of manic connectivity often lead to a lack of productivity and, if allowed to permeate too deeply, to an assault on the beauty and meaning of everyday life.
Obviously this is not a unique grievance, or a fresh one: As Mr. Powers acknowledges, concerns about the deleterious effects of a new world supplanting the old go back to Plato. But there has been an awful lot of grousing about digital distraction lately—Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” came out just a few weeks ago—and it is easy to feel skeptical of worrywarts agonizing about Americans “wrestling” with too many choices and “coping” with the effects of too much Internet use.
There is simply too much good that comes of innovation for that sort of Luddite hand-wringing. The farmer a century ago who pulled himself off the straw mattress at 4 a.m. to till the earth so his family wouldn’t starve led a fairly straightforward, undistracted existence, but he was almost certainly miserable most of the time. And he probably regarded the arrival of radio as a sort of miracle. In discussions of this type I tend to rely on the wisdom of P.J. O’Rourke: “Civilization is an enormous improvement on the lack thereof.”
But even a jaded reader is likely to be won over by “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” It convincingly argues that we’ve ceded too much of our existence to what he calls Digital Maximalism. Less scold and more philosopher, Mr. Powers certainly bemoans the spread of technology in our lives, but he also offers a compelling discussion of our dependence on contraptions and of the ways in which we might free ourselves from them. I buy it. I need quiet time.
To accept “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” is to accept that we are super busy. “It’s staggering,” writes Mr. Powers, “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.” Though I don’t find all that ball-juggling as staggering as the author, and I don’t know anyone who acts as if chaos is the point of it all, it would be foolish not to concede that our lives have become far more complex than ever before.
What can be done? What should be done? Mr. Powers’s answer is, in essence: Just say no. Try to cultivate a quieter or at least more focused life. The most persuasive and entertaining parts of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” are found in Mr. Powers’s efforts to practice what he preaches. (Most of us, it should be noted, do not have the option of moving from a dense Washington, D.C., suburb to an idyllic Cape Cod town to grapple with the demons of gadgetry addiction.) His skeptical wife and kids agree that if they’re allowed to use their laptops during the week, they will turn the computers off on the weekend. Mr. Powers discovers that friends and relatives quickly adapt to the family’s digital disconnect (they call it the “Internet Sabbath”). The family spends more time face-to-face instead of Facebooking.
Mr. Powers proposes that we take into account the “need to connect outward, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart.” It is a powerful desire, the balanced life. Most of us yearn for it. Neither technology nor connectivity is injurious unless we allow them to consume us. Mr. Powers argues that letting life turn into a blizzard of snapshots—that’s what all those screenviews amount to, after all—isn’t enough. We would be happier freeing ourselves for genuine, unfiltered experience and then reflecting on it, not tweeting about it. The busy person will pause here to nod in sympathy.
I’m not sure that many of us have found that spacious place where our minds can wander free of technological intrusions, of beeps and buttons and emails and tweets, but “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” makes the case that we can—or should—find it. Recently, while watching some hypnotically dreadful movie, I instinctively reached for my BlackBerry to fetch some worthless biographical information about a third-rate actress that would do no more than clog my brain still further.
Then I remembered something in Mr. Powers’s book—which takes its title from a scene in “Hamlet” when the prince refers to an Elizabethan technical advance: specially coated paper or parchment that could be wiped clean. A book that included heavy, blank, erasable pages made from such paper—an almanac, for example—was called a table. “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,” Hamlet says. Or, as Mr. Powers paraphrases: ” ‘Don’t worry,’ Hamlet’s nifty device whispered, ‘you don’t have to know everything. Just the few things that matter.’ “