I recently read William Powers’ insightful book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Mr. Powers eloquently throws light on what he calls “the conundrum at the heart of the digital age.” It’s a book about our connected digital devices – what he simply calls our “screens” – and the roles we are allowing them to play in our lives.
The author is no technophobe, and this book is not one which decries connected devices and their uses. Rather, it’s a book about balance, and a call for deliberately thinking about the quality of our lives in this digital age. It’s a book about calling out the de facto philosophy by which many of us live day by day.
We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let’s face it, this is how we’ve been living.
I can relate to that. The benefits of “connecting via screens” are obvious in both our business and personal lives. Our screens allow us instant access to information and people in ways never before achieved. That’s great. But the problem which this philosophy of Digital Maximalism quickly leads to, however, is one of balance.
Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along…. The air is full of people.
Balance between making time to think – alone, by myself, with no distractions – and connecting with the ever-present crowd via my screens can be a challenge to achieve. And it’s impossible to achieve without deliberately considering why and how I should achieve it.
To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.
Mr. Powers makes the point that time spent in concentrated focus or thought is essential to living a fulfilled life, and essential to real productivity at work. Depth is key to quality. The danger with screens, however, is that constant updates from and for the crowd become constant interruptions which can undermine depth.
[B]oth software and hardware make it easy to hop around. So easy, it’s irresistible…. Thus, although we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity…. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.
Going back in time, he looks at seven other technological innovations in history (writing, printing press, etc.), and shows how each one of them caused a similar phenomenon to our digital-age “information overload.” He draws on the work of leading thinkers of each era to show that this problem, and some possible remedies, are not new or unique to our time. Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan all have things to say to us on these points.
Mr. Powers shares some strategies for re-establishing balance which he and his family have tried personally. But in the end, this book is not about answers: it’s about thinking. The ideas presented are relevant and speak deeply to our need for balance. The ideas are paramount. The ideas are what will lead you to rationally consider your own connectedness and connected habits. After all, the answer for each us will be different, but none of us can reach our effectual answer without thinking – deeply.
What have you found to be effective ways of carving out time to think, or minimizing interruptions from “the crowd” in your own life?