My dad was the first person I knew to get a mobile phone. I remember when he first brought it home from work and my older sister and I marvelled over it, dreaming of the day we too would own a mobile phone. He hated it. He would swear and shake his head whenever it rang and forbade anyone in the house from buying one of their own: ‘It’s just work’s way of making me contactable at any time. I can’t leave the office now – the office comes everywhere with me.’
That was more than fifteen years ago now, and how things have changed. With the advent of smartphones, the urban environment is a veritable sea of personal screens. Everywhere you go you see people sending messages and emails – while on trains, under tables during dinner and during seemingly intimate embraces – we just can’t seem to put our screens down. The only time this dependence on connectivity seems to be an issue is when there is no wireless connection. And then we often react with a sense of outrage. As the comedian Louis CK once commented on human’s reactions to technology, ‘how quickly we think the world owes us something that we knew existed only ten seconds ago’.
Hamlet’s Blackberry is a meditation on this new phenomenon of connectivity by media and technology journalist William Powers. Using his own personal experience with technology, Powers asks at what cost we surround ourselves with this maddening crowd of screens? Why can’t you watch a YouTube clip of your favourite singer to the end without your eyes straying to a scrolling news story? If you have four hundred Facebook friends, why do you still feel lonely? And if you go for a walk in the woods and you don’t tweet about it, did it really happen? The book acts as a self-help guide of sorts, encouraging the reader to lead happy, productive lives in a connected world by mastering ‘the art of disconnecting’.
However, the book is far from a luddite’s tome. Powers is quick to acknowledge the wealth of information and unparalleled options for communication made available to us through our beloved screens. But he contends that, in a world in which digital overload is the norm, the power of technology is best harnessed alongside ‘space’ – a momentary disengagement; that it is through letting your brain breathe that you can fully capitalise on the benefits of this technology. To illustrate this, Powers uses an example of a phone call he made to his mother while driving from an airport. The picture of his mother that appeared on his mobile phone as he dialled her number took him to a loving memory that gives him inner contentment. It is the mobile phone technology that triggers this moment of inner joy. However, he suggests that it is the time he had to reflect on the phone call afterwards that allowed his brain to travel to this inner space and engage with the memory. It is through this ‘space’ or ‘gap’ from the technology that Powers argues one is able to truly experience the ingenuity of communication technology. He explains that, ‘if you’re sitting in the office zipping from e-mail to e-mail to text to Web page to buzzing mobile and back again – that is, doing the usual digital dance – you’re likely losing all kinds of opportunities to reach the depth I’m talking about’.
And ‘depth’ is a vital for Powers, who defines it as ‘an understanding that comes when we truly engage with some aspect of our life experience’. He believes that the ‘digital dance’ allows us very few opportunities to engage deeply with our everyday life experience. It is this concept that Powers begins to unpack through his use of seven key historical figures: Plato, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Johann Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan. It is slightly disappointing that all the people that Powers uses to explore this modern phenomenon are dead white men. It’s even more disappointing that Powers notes this very fact in the first section of the book but does nothing to explain or expand on it, stating simply: ‘Great ideas have no expiration date.’
Thankfully, this early oversight is far from symptomatic and Powers masterfully unravels a nuanced interrogation of humans’ relationship with technology. He pitches the book’s tone perfectly, floating seamlessly between memoir-style narration to a more distanced informative tone. Since the subject matter of the book is so focused on the personal use of technology, any other approach would have felt insincere. And while at times it can feel that Powers is really reaching for his metaphors in these stories about connectivity in the lives of some these historical figures, it is beside the point as the book remains entertaining and intelligent all the same. Powers has a deft way of weaving fragments of history and sociology into his arguments without losing his vigour or pace. The chapter regarding Benjamin Franklin’s stringent life routines was particularly enthralling, despite its somewhat loose connection with the premise. With a charm similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, Powers is so clearly interested in what he is talking about, it’s hard not to be too.
The book is unfortunately victim to a long creative prologue in which Powers takes his readers on a whimsical imagining of living these connected lives: we are all individuals in a gigantic room tapping each other on the shoulder. Oh brother. This section is uncomfortably clumsy for such a great writer, and you can’t help but wonder why it wasn’t cut.
The last section of the book is somewhat of a how-to guide, focusing on how Powers and his family put these lessons from the historical figures into practice. However, despite the depth and shadow of the preceding chapters, they merely disconnected their Internet on the weekend. I am not doubting the commitment that this took the family, which contains two freelance writers; it just seemed to be a rather broad stroke after we’d spent so much time on the details. Did we really need to read Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Seneca, McLuhon, Gutenberg and Franklin for that? Surely there is a subtler, more engaged, more thoughtful way to disengage while still being connected?
Or maybe it really is simply that easy. My father had a similar ritual with his hated work phone. He would dutifully turn it off on the weekends and at around 7 pm every night, swearing at all the Western Australians who’d call during dinner. When he started doing this, on Monday mornings he would turn it on and there would be message after message from people who’d tried to reach him on Friday night for some deadline or another. Soon they realised he was not reachable after 7 pm and they stopped calling. The same happened for Powers and his family.
Powers suggests that until companies begin to create options within our technology that allow reprieve, or ‘gap’, we will have to enforce it ourselves or face a world with diminished depth in thinking and an influx of overstimulated inactivity. He talks of premium vacation spots advertising ‘unwired’ holidays, where Internet service, or rather, the lack thereof, is an added extra to the overworked digital junkie. Christopher Poole, the founder of the cultishly popular imageboard 4chan, reports that he often gets emails from regular users who want to be banned from the website so they can be productive individuals IRL. It seems we are still far off from mastering what Powers calls the ‘art of disconnecting’. However, with insightful and engaging books like this, we are at least on the right path towards a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between technology and humans that is so often reported on, and so rarely examined.
Anna Barnes lives in Melbourne and writes plays, fiction and really good text messages.