Monday, October 11, 2010

Hamlet had a Blackberry

Hamlet's Blackberry 
A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, 
by William Powers, Scribe, 267pp.

William Powers is a journalist and media critic who lives on (and in) the world of digital connectedness, but sees peril in a life that is continually distracted by the beeps, flickers and tweets issuing from our always-on smart-phones, portable screens, and email alarms.

He has recognized that addiction to connectedness can seduce willing victims of E-harassment with demands for attention from workplace, from well-meaning friends, and compulsive participation in spurious “social networks” that feed on a false sense of artificial community.

But Powers is no I-phobe.  The issue, as in every instance of a powerful new tool, is to winnow the useful applications from the purely wasteful and the actively harmful. It is for the individual user to work out how much connectedness actually contributes to what philosophers call “the good life”.

Without time for introspection and intimate conversation, unmediated by technology, an individual cannot attain “the good life”.

Socrates, with a career based on conversation, was addicted to the bustle and chance encounters of the Athenian agora - to being “always on-line”. Yet once forced off-line to a rural walk and uninterrupted conversation with one individual, he acknowledged feeling significantly refreshed.

The tale of Hamlet's Blackberry is a wonderful piece of Shakespearian exegesis. At one point Hamlet, trying to clear the “distracted globe” of his mind, declares:

Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records…

And later, when struck by something he wants to remember..

My tables - meet it is I set it down..

The “Tables” was a new invention - a pocket notebook with erasable pages, all the rage among Elizabethan early-adopters. Powers' point here is that Shakespeare links Hamlet's distracted mind with an obsessive collection of “trivial fond records”, just because he possesses the device that enables this collection.

The arguments here follow well-worn themes about extraversion, introversion, self and society, applied to the current context of connectivity enthusiasm - what he calls “digital maximalism”. As so often, the choice is not binary, but of individual balance.

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Richard Thwaites once worked in the National Office for the Information Economy and pursues a good life, cautiously connected, in Canberra.