Hamlet’s Blackberry

Have you ever monitored your Twitter feed while you were in the middle of Facebooking— only to be distracted by the ping of an incoming email?  In this digital age, do you ever feel too connected?

I’m in the middle of a new book called Hamlet’s Blackberry, which seeks to teach us how to connect with wisdom.  I came across it partly because the author and I share the same name. The book looks to history for precedents into how we can reduce some of our information age anxiety.

Take Socrates. He stressed out over “the very latest communications technology, written language based on an alphabet.” Socrates thought that writing things down would make people kind of stupid, because “they wouldn’t feel the need to ‘remember it from the inside, completely on their own.’” Worse yet, writing wouldn’t “allow ideas to flow freely and change in real time, the way they do in the mind during oral exchange.”

While Powers’ forays into history are interesting, we shouldn’t forget that the 21st century is different because the changes are far more explosively exponential than ever before.

So what are we to do? Powers suggests this: disconnect sometimes. His family, for instance, takes an “Internet Sabbath” each weekend.

“We turn off the household modem,” he says,  “and we don’t have smart phones, so therefore we can’t get [in] our inboxes the whole weekend. We can’t do Web surfing. We can still call, we can still text — but we’re not really texting addicts. We really enter this other zone, and it’s wonderful.”

Do quick fixes like “internet sabbaths” go far enough to address what Powers calls “the conundrum of connectedness”? Or do we need a more truly transformational change, as, for example, the more radical wildcrafters in my new book Twelve by Twelve suggest?

Or is it not really a problem at all, as much of mainstream culture tells us? Take this, from this month’s Atlantic Monthly, on “The 14 ¾ Biggest Ideas of the Year”. One of the “biggest ideas” of 2010 is that boredom is extinct: “Thanks to Twitter, iPads, BlackBerrys, voice-activated in-dash navigation systems, and a hundred other technologies that offer distraction anywhere, anytime,” the piece argues, “boredom has loosened its grip on us at last—that once-crushing “weight” has become, for the most part, a memory. Even the worst blind dates don’t bore us now; we’re never more than a click away from freedom, from an instantaneous change of conversation partners.”


  1. says

    So boredom is extinct, and this is supposed to be a good thing? If you want to define “boredom” as “not being distracted”, then I guess those of us who are at the beck and call of our Blackberries, cell phones, Twitter accounts, email etc. are no longer “bored”–we’re distracted to death instead. But those so-called boring moments of life are when we are able to indulge in deep thought, reflection, enjoyment of nature, and just plain “being”–all of which are crucial for our mental health and for maintaining our sanity in our go-go world.

    I’m with the “other” William Powers–taking regular Internet Sabbaths is a good start. I have limited my Internet use in similar fashion. In addition, I have made a conscious effort over the past few months to reduce my mutli-tasking, in part by reading only one book at a time, and have found reading much more enjoyable; much easier to become lost in the book; much better able to read profound works without nodding off after half a page (due to too much skimming on the ‘net, thereby getting out of practice of reading “real stuff” and reading in depth). And my ability to think and to concentrate has improved dramatically.

    And realize, I am probably only an average user of technology–I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, I don’t currently have a job that requires constant use of email–yet I have noticed a DRAMATIC difference in my ability to relax, to enjoy the moment, to concentrate, and to appreciate the important things in life. I am no longer being constantly distracted/interrupted in my thinking by the next message to come my way.

    My next step will be more along the lines of what the wildcrafters of 12 X 12…but at least I’ve made a start.

    • says

      I agree with you and admire your mindfulness. Thanks for the key distinction between lack of boredom and distraction. Just one question (two actually): the dramatic difference you notice in your ability to relax is compared to what? (did you use more technology before?) And what is the “next step” ala wildcrafting that you’re pondering?-Bill P.

  2. says

    …compared to having a lot of trouble following a thought to completion. For instance, I was taking a course in international topics and was writing essays for homework. I’d start writing a sentence and then my brain would dash off in another direction before I could even get the complete thought down. Made it very difficult to get my homework done! At the time, I had a job in customer service/inside sales that was almost exclusively performed via email and the company’s ERP system (manufacturing scheduling etc.)–probably spent 6 hours a day reading (skimming) email and sending email, with constant ‘pings’ interrupting me to announce yet more email had arrived. Plus IM’s. I left that job last fall, as I found it didn’t match my values or how I wanted to spend my day (I’m nearly 50–I’m thinking I ought to be able to get closer to that life by now).

    Next step I’m considering: Finding like-minded people in my community to exchange ideas with, whether through volunteer work, social action or something else. And ultimately downsize our living situation (we’re in a typical suburb). I’d like to do more for our world than recycle my trash (though I know every little bit helps).

  3. says

    Dear Mr. Powers,

    Just heard your interview on NPR and had to smile when I heard you describe your life on the Cape . I want to share my thoughts and the best way for me to do this is to offer a book exchange. I will you send you a copy of my latest book, Plato’s Pond, in exchange for a copy of Hamlet’s Blackberry. Plato’s Pond is written for young readers and encourages them to conduct science experiments using common everyday objects to solve a crime. Everything can be done “unplugged” except if the reader wants to compare their experimental results with others’. If they don’t know anyone “next door” they can can share their results on the book’s website.

    I look forward to your reply.
    Fred Andrews


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