[Paperback, Harper Perennial; 2011)]

by Alex Hunley

“The air is full of people” – William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry

Any city-dweller has probably had an experience like this: last Monday morning, standing at a corner in a small crowd waiting to cross the street, I glance about and realize that I am the only person not staring at a mobile phone.  Not just on this side of the street, but on the other as well.  And once I notice this, I begin to see it everywhere.  Walking along the sidewalk, I almost bump into a guy in front of me who has simply stopped, thumbs flying across a tiny keyboard and eyes affixed to his Blackberry’s screen.  A young mother passes me, steering her stroller with her elbows so her hands are free to use her iPhone.  I look into the stroller and, no jest, the toddler within is playing with an older iPhone.  I assume it’s the mother’s hand-me-down.  This gives me a murky feeling of unease, yet I have a hard time formulating the reason why.  But I’m busy and in a hurry, and then my phone rings, and I answer it, and so I don’t give the feeling any more thought.

Perhaps, looking back at these last few years from some point in the future, coming generations will see the early 2010s as the point when we began frankly to assess the impact that information technologies have on our social institutions, our personal relationships, and our very ways of experiencing the world around us.  A bevy of recently published books confirms the possibility: James Gleick’s The Information traces information exchange to the roots of everything, while The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and You Are Not A Gadget have aimed to reorient our perception of the technological spaces in which we now live.  William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, the book here under review, both partakes of these “trending” concerns and, in a number of important ways, supplants some of their animating (and normative) assumptions.  Powers is neither a techno-triumphalist or a reactive luddite, and likewise his book seeks to breath an air of humanity back into our increasingly screen-based world without ignoring the great benefits and possibilities created by our use of technology.

Rather than decrying our addiction to screens, and the concomitant state of information-overload, as harbinger of collective doom, Powers takes a more measured approach, stating that pervasive information technology is still very new to us and that, as in other historical periods of upheaval in communicative technology, it takes some time for culture to adjust to the evolving environment.  After all, these screens were invented because we have uses for them, and they have proved extremely beneficial for these uses.  It is not the technology itself that Powers wants to criticize, but the tacit, unexamined philosophy with which we have so far invited these gadgets into our lives, a philosophy Powers calls “Digital Maximalism.”  Digital Maximalism is an essentially fundamentalist creed, its core tenet being something like: In all cases, more connection is good, less connection is bad.

By highlighting the role that this philosophy, Digital Maximalism, plays in our busy, anxious lives, Powers wants to show that the choices we make create the experiences we have.  If we say that our gadgets are driving us nuts, then we ought to ask why we have allowed them to do so.  What does it say about us that we allow our tools to make tools of us?  We need a way of making sense of this.  This is to say, we need a new philosophy.  He writes:

“What I’m proposing here is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart.  The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.”

And though this “new digital philosophy” responds to the needs of this Information Age, for its source-materials Powers looks to the past.  The middle portion of the book is devoted to a series of thinkers whom Powers dubs the “Seven Philosophers of Screens,” with the metaphor of “screen” being construed in the broadest sense imaginable.  From each of these seven, Powers extracts a principle or lesson that he applies to our current cultural confusion.  The quality of interpretation in these chapters is uneven (the chapter on Plato seems contrived, while the chapters on Franklin and Thoreau are the book’s best), but the overall narrative is compelling: as human civilization evolves through time, humans strive to communicate outwardly, to connect; as our capacities (and technologies) for connection flourish, we see the emergence of a divide between self and the crowd; these Seven Philosophers of Screens (our “screens” being synonymous with our connection to the crowd) have variously sought ways to maintain the inner, personal self, in order to balance the outward, reactive self that lives in, and for, the crowd.

For all its many uses and entertainments, experience in the crowd lacks a crucial element of a fulfilled life: depth.  Throughout Powers’ narrative, philosophers seek to create the conditions in their lives which are conducive to depth and meaning.  Unlike the information that is the sustaining force of the crowd, depth requires time, solitude, and reflection to form.  If my ultra-connected life leaves me feeling anxious and attenuated, Powers suggests that it is because I live only on the surface, rarely allowing myself the time to breathe, digest, and consider, to take nourishment from the abundant meaning that life offers.  But the unexamined ethos of Digital Maximalism cannot countenance this; instead I look for more efficient ways of navigating the world of information, improving my workflow, hoping that I can figure it out later, as soon as I get some free time.

The philosophic discussion in this book belongs to the venerable tradition of “philosophy as the art of living.”  The bibliography lists books by Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault, and Powers directly channels the latter when he writes that we need “a new technology of the self for a digital world.”  Based on a critical-yet-invested survey of these modern adaptations of human experience, Hamlet’s Blackberry makes the important case that this “new technology of self” won’t be “new” in the sense of a new mobile device or clever piece of software.  Indeed, the resources for dealing with our current plight lie where they always have for those in need, in the tradition human wisdom, the oldest technology of all.  Powers’ account is balanced and thoughtful, and the modernized version of the Examined Life it presents is an encouraging corrective to the distractions everywhere proliferating.


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