Review: Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

by Kim on January 6, 2011 · 27 comments

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Title: Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age
Author: William Powers
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Publisher: Harper
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: From the publisher, because it’s so succinct — “A crisp, passionately argued answer to the question that everyone who’s grown dependent on digital devices is asking: “Where’s the rest of my life?”

One Sentence Review: If you need a thoughtful and well-written book to remind you that it is, in fact, ok to step away from all the screens in your life, then this is the book.

Review: I think it’s been hard for me to decide what to say about Hamlet’s BlackBerry by William Powers because every time I sit down to write a review, thinking about the book makes me want to unplug from my computer and go do something, anything, else.

And that’s certainly not because the book was bad — the exact opposite in fact. It’s because Hamlet’s BlackBerry gave me the exact type of “authoritative” permission I’ve seemed to need in order to just step back, put all my connective gadgets away, and get away from the tentacles that technology has over my brain.

Powers starts out the book with an analogy that I just love: You are in a giant room that can hold more than a billion people, but the room is designed so that you can be in close proximity to everyone. As you walk around, people tap you on the shoulder all wanting the same thing — some of your time and attention. You have a personal zone in the room, but anyone can come in and out as they please. But at some point you want a break from all the tapping — what do you do?

In the analogy, find a door to the room and jump out. In real life, where we are faced with a multitude of screens that connect us to all of the tapping people who want our time and attention the solution doesn’t seem that simple.

Yet according to Powers, it can be, and people from as far back as Plato and even Shakespeare’s Danish prince Hamlet have been dealing, in their own ways, with this very issue.

The majority of Hamlet’s BlackBerry is dedicated to these folks — historical figures who have commented on technology and the way it changes the way we think. Seneca battled with finding inner space, and solved the problem by writing more. Similarly, Ben Franklin was concerned about connecting with others and reinventing himself. His solution? Guidelines and positively focused rituals.

The final section of the book is more personal, Powers reflecting on how to implement some of these philosophies in the digital age. While I’m not sure how practical all of his solutions — total digital detox weekends — are for me, I was appreciative of the way Powers showed that it is ok, even beneficial, to step back once in awhile and give yourself space away from the constant noise.

As a whole, I think the book filled a nice middle space in my reading on technology and your mind. It wasn’t quite as alarmist or critical as The Shallows by Nicolas Carr (which I started but didn’t finish because it was frustrating me), or as championing as, say, Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry felt balanced — excited about technology, appreciative of it’s benefits, but reasonable about the drawbacks and pragmatic about how to fit it into an increasingly connected world.

Other Reviews: Fizzy Thoughts | Bookin’ with Bingo |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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