William Powers has written an attention grabbing book (#4443 on Amazon) and thoughtful Christians should take note. He chose an intriguing title – “Hamlet’s Blackberry” and adds a subtitle of “a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age.” Powers joins the growing chorus of social critics who observe that all this digital connectedness is making us hollow, shallow, and less human.
He notes that today, “the goal is no longer to be ‘in touch’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch” (15), which he says leads to distractedness and “outwardness.” That modern problem – “outwardness” – reduces or totally eliminates the desire or energy to look inward, where, Powers strongly believes, are all the answers.
He’s certainly not alone in his call to disconnect. He quotes Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google, who, in a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, shocked his tech savvy audience by saying, “Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us. Nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he walks his first steps” (76).
Up to this part of the book, nothing Powers writes is unique. In fact, I thought he could have gotten to his specific contribution sooner. What he offers in the bulk of his book are lessons he has gleaned from great philosophers in the past. Each one, he says, can show us how to find a healthy balance between staying connected when necessary (so he’s not calling for a completely non-tech lifestyle) and disconnecting regularly so we can find inner solace, wisdom, depth, and meaning.
At the risk of oversimplifying his worthwhile points, he suggests that:
– Socrates teaches us to engage in conversation and to distance ourselves from the hustle of crowdedness by taking walks.
– Seneca teaches us to turn off distractions and pursue “inner self-sufficiency.”
– Gutenberg “democratized reading” when he gave us books and we should read them.
– Shakespeare carried around a little notebook and so should we. (He goes on for quite a while about how much he likes Moleskins). Handwriting with paper and pen, he argues, is an old technology that should not be replaced by the new ones.
– Benjamin Franklin pursued inner change and inner convictions by crafting personal disciplines, which aid mental clarity. He also highly valued social networking, which Powers says must be pursued apart from Facebook, et. al.
– Thoreau taught us to value home as sanctuary, to live life deliberately, and to transcend the mundane through listening to that inner voice we can only find in solitude.
– Marshall McLuhan (yes, he includes McLuhan with the “great” philosophers) encourages us to resist the temptation of Narcissus and regulate the climate of our minds. We need to remember that “different devices affect us in different ways” (203).
To be sure, Powers has some very good things to say. His family’s example of turning off their modem every weekend for the past several years deserves emulation – in a variety of ways. His central thesis that we should disconnect regularly from the Internet and all it’s entanglements (email, IMing, Facebook, etc.) so that, when we do connect, we do so more purposefully and thoughtfully, is spot on. His assumption that we do not need to be as shallow as we have become is a word desperately needed for all people, especially those who want to love God with their minds.
But another core assumption of the book must be rejected by those of us who may want more of Solomon’s Blackberry instead of Hamlet’s. I’ll address that in the next blog. (I promise that I’ll post Part 2 in just a few days…unless I get distracted).