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Powers is a gifted storyteller and his walk though the history of philosophy and technology makes this slender volume an enjoyable, quick read. He begins by reminding us that "whenever new devices have emerged, they’ve presented the kinds of challenges we face today — busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control. These challenges were as real two millennia ago as they are today, and throughout history, people have been grappling with them and looking for creative ways to manage life in the crowd."
His key insight is that is that humans can adapt new technology, but it takes time, patience, humility, and a little effort. “The key is to strike a balance,” he says, between “the call of the crowd” and the “need for time and space apart” from it. The problem we face today is that all the pressure is on us to be what he calls “Digital Maximalists.” That is, many of us are increasingly out to maximize the time spent in front of various digital “screens” whether we have made the determination that is really in our best interest or not. It has just gradually happened, Powers argues, because “The goal is no longer to be ‘in touch’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch.”
Echoing the concern displayed in Nick Carr’s new book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," as well as John Freeman's "The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox," Powers fears that time for focus and introspection “is lost when your days are spread so thin, busyness itself is your true occupation. If every moment is a traffic jam, it’s impossible to engage any experience with one’s whole self. More and more, that’s how we live,” he argues.
Even though Powers clearly leans more toward the techno-pessimist camp in this regard, what I like best about his book is that he generally avoids a preachy tone and excessive hand-wringing. He isn’t one of those techno-pessimists who adopts a holy-than-thou, the-rest-of-you-just-don’t-get-it attitude. In fact, there’s a great deal of self-deprecating humor in the book as Powers explains how he is struggling with the same issues the rest of us are and trying to figure out how to strike the right balance in his own life. Importantly, he notes that each of us will strike that balance differently. “[E]veryone has to work that out for himself. We’re all different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to balance the outward life and the inward one.” That is a crucial insight. There’s nothing worse than a techno-skeptic who tells us they have discovered the one true path to enlightenment or happiness — especially when it entails giving up new technologies that can have so many beneficial upsides. Indeed, Powers argues that “It’s never a good idea to buy into the dark fears of the techno-Cassandras, who generally turn out to be wrong. Human beings are skillful at figuring out the best uses of new tools. However, it can take awhile.”
Indeed, the struggle with information clutter will continue. Assimilating new communications and entertainment technologies into our lives has always been challenging, but, thanks to excellent advice like that offer by William Powers in "Hamlet’s BlackBerry," I am optimistic that we humans can do so sensibly and be happier -- and wiser -- for it in the long-run.
You can find my complete review of "Hamlet's BlackBerry" here: http://techliberation.com/2010/09/06/coping-with-information-overload-thoughts-on-hamlets-blackberry-by-william-powers