If you are an introvert like me, today’s 24/7 digital connectivity is more disturbing than appealing. My cell phone languishes in a desk drawer most of the time, and I can’t think of a better recipe for stress-related illness than having hundreds of Facebook “friends.” I just have no desire to be that available—especially to billions of strangers. (And yes, I know about privacy settings. Like there’s privacy on the Internet.)
Which is why I love “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” by William Powers. This elegantly written book is no less than a manifesto for those of us who value the inward life and who have doubts that the current philosophy of maximum-connectedness-through-screens is healthy.
Powers’ book has three parts. In the first, he argues that the incredible pressure we face today to join the digital “crowd,” to be exposed to ever more people, ideas, news, entertainment, products and events, should be resisted—so we can literally find our own minds again. Too much time in “screenland,” he says (and neurological research backs him up), damages the capacity to look inward, the only place where originality and insight—not to mention peace of mind—can be found.
His second premise is that we have been here before: today’s connectivity explosion is nothing new in human history. Powers gives fascinating examples of times when radical new inventions (such as writing, the printing press, the transatlantic cable, radio) caused quantum leaps in our ability to communicate. And even then, powerful voices—including those of Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, and Thoreau—warned against the dangers of the crowd mind.
Powers himself is optimistic about our ability to survive as separate souls in this hyperconnected world. In the book’s last two chapters, “Not So Busy” and “Disconnectopia: The Internet Sabbath,” he describes simple (though perhaps not easy) decisions and changes in behavior that can help us turn off the screens, get back in our bodies and think independently again.
Reading “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” (after you turn off this screen!) would be a good way to start.