Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers
A timely philosophical reflection on the digital influences in our daily lives and how we can harmonise with them rather than oppose them—as we often do in vain.

Although I read this book four years ago I was actu­ally read­ing it four years after the book was first pub­lished. In the digit­al age that is a life­time: between the book’s pub­lish­ing and now nearly five mil­lion star­tups have come up, most have died, and nearly all of them had been madly vying for our atten­tion. This mad­ness is yet to die, which is what still keeps Mr Powers’s book rel­ev­ant. That, rein­forced by my insist­ence that the social media of today can poten­tially induce ADHD but I digress.

Unlike a lot of books that deal with these top­ics Hamlet’s black­berry is not driv­en by a hatred for tech­no­logy or by glor­i­ous calls for abstin­ence. This is pre­cisely what makes a read­er like myself take Mr Powers ser­i­ously. Rather than cit­ing examples of recent times, of people walk­ing into lamp­posts or diving under trucks, lost on their phones, he talks about how our con­cern for mod­ern tech­no­logy is not entirely well-foun­ded. Or at least has had pre­de­cessors. We have always been wor­ried about the new but have turned out just fine as a soci­ety.

A lot of us are feel­ing tapped out, hungry for some time away from the crowd. Life in the digit­al room would be saner and more ful­filling if we knew how to leave it now and then.

It is as indi­vidu­als, though, that we need to look into ourselves and Hamlet’s black­berry talks about this beau­ti­fully. Right at the start of the book Mr Powers talks about vis­it­ing his moth­er and how he could call her up and let her know he was run­ning late. Tech­no­logy made that pos­sible with great ease: without it he would have either had no way of get­ting in touch with her or would have had to look for more time-con­sum­ing means, like a payphone. So tech­no­logy is good he says, but focusses entirely on what hap­pen after he keeps his phone down. He loses him­self moment­ar­ily in memor­ies of his moth­er mak­ing it appear like tech­no­logy brought him closer. Per­haps it did, but the cir­cum­stances are just as import­ant he points out. Had he called his moth­er and, soon after, checked his tweets or his Face­book timeline he would not have exper­i­enced the same bliss. With that he estab­lishes a thread that stitches the found­a­tion of his book.

Using tech­no­logy can be a good thing but ensur­ing we have ample pock­ets of inde­pend­ent time between suc­cess­ive uses of tech­no­logy is extremely import­ant to keep our life well-bal­anced. It would, he says, ‘be saner and more ful­filling if we knew how to leave [the digit­al world] now and then.’

He pro­poses Walden zones (inspired by Thor­eau) and speaks of how his own fam­ily takes the week­ends off the web. Moments of dis­con­nect like this not only keep us alertly in the present but also enrich those planned, inten­tion­al moments dur­ing which we actu­ally do con­nect.

What sets this book apart is its philo­soph­ic­al approach. This is also what will ensure this book remains mean­ing­ful for years to come. Rather than offer­ing abso­lute solu­tions that might lose valid­ity with time Mr Powers explores the philo­sophies that ought to drive us to con­trol our use of tech­no­logy and help us reign ourselves in. This alone makes Hamlet’s black­berry worth hav­ing on our read­ing list.

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