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.”