On Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers

Powers joins the ranks of people who are critical of our ‘always-on’ connected world and calls for more people to take time away from our screens to talk to other people, both strangers and our families. I’m broadly sympathetic to the critique Powers makes but his insights are not original. There are many others who have been expressing the same concerns for much longer. This book was published in 2010 and takes most of its examples from newspaper and magazine stories. There is very little engagement with the academic literature around criticisms of technology, human computer interaction, or the psychology of online interactions. In this sense the critique is rehashes of rehashes.

The interesting part of the book is Powers attempt to glean some insights into our current condition by looking to seven past ‘philosophers’: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan. From them he makes some suggestions about creating physical distance by taking a walk a la Plato; fostering a sense of inner space by focusing on one person or topic a la Seneca; using technology for inwardness as books were used after Gutenberg; turning to older tools like paper to keep our notes after Shakespeare; developing positive rituals as Franklin did; creating Walden zones away from technology a la Thoreau; and turing the temperature of our technologies down a la McLuhan. These ideas boil down to the principle of mindfulness, be aware of how you use technology and don’t let technology use you. Overall a pedestrian summary of concerns about technology with some anecdotal advice inspired by great thinkers of the past.