Monday, February 14, 2011

Hamlet's BlackBerry

I read Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers, because of the review at Sophisticated Dorkiness. And really, I don't know what I was expecting--something I didn't already know? Some kind of magic solution?

The book begins with a delightful analogy and goes on to identify the problem of busyness, which is that it's inevitable in a culture where "it's good to be connected, and it's bad to be disconnected." (If you don't believe that of our culture, think back to the last time you visited a parents' house, a hotel or a restaurant that didn't have a wireless connection.)

Although I believe that there are some problems with what he calls "the Vanishing Family Trick," I don't believe that parental authoritarianism, his recommended remedy, is the solution. As he points out in a later chapter on Ben Franklin, people have to see the positive in their resolution to give up something they want, and the children in his family, while they may like the parentally-mandated internet free weekends, as he asserts they do, have had it chosen for them; I'm assuming that they're younger than my teenagers.

I've recently been dealing with my teenage son's struggle for independence, and I'm trying hard to see his side--so hard that this book may have just come at the wrong time for me. It does affect my reaction to sentences like "my most cherished childhood memories, the ones that made me who I am and sustain me today, are about moments when a parent, grandparent, or somebody else I cared about put everything and everyone else aside to be with me alone...." which seems to me to be a version of the "only two choices" logical fallacy--either you spend this much time with someone without answering the call of electronic devices, or you give in to their lure entirely. Wouldn't teaching a kid good manners solve some a lot of these problems--you know, like talk to the people you're with rather than ignore them because of your phone? Powers does mention changes in the etiquette of telephone use: "for much of the twentieth century, when the phone rang it was customary to drop whatever you were doing and answer it....And we're still learning to live with phones."

The section in which Powers proposes we have something to learn about how to construct our own versions of the good life from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan seemed contrived and spun-out to me, as if a small, clever idea Powers came up with had been plumped and cosseted so it could stretch out to book length. He's dug up several references to an erasable "table" mentioned in Hamlet and asserts that "it played a central role in people's lives for hundreds of years and helped some of history's most brilliant minds organize their time and thoughts" while comparing its usefulness to that of his own moleskine notebook, and he's usefully inserted an interpretation of Walden back into the context of Transcendentalism. But I found nothing relevatory here.

Powers ends with some personal suggestions about how to live a good life amid a myriad of screens demanding some of our time and attention. One of them that I particularly like--because it's one I already do and it works well for me--is "to start using other people as your search's more enjoyable listening to the latest developments through the interpretive lens of a person you know, and it saves a lot of trouble."

Other suggestions I like less: "Have a disconnected party where all devices are confiscated at the door." Again, wouldn't good manners dictate that when you go to a party, you voluntarily put them away when you come through the door? Maybe where Powers lives it isn't considered rude to use electronic devices while visiting someone else's house, but where I live, unless you're a medical doctor on call, you're expected to be able to live without your devices for a couple of hours when the pleasure of your company has been requested.

This book inspires me to begin concluding my reviews with an audience recommendation. You could see this series building in my previous posts--one of my most urgent criticisms of Stanley Fish's book How To Write A Sentence was that I didn't think he had a very good idea of who he was writing it for, and the audience for Eleanor's Brown's novel was also a subject for my speculation. It seems like a good direction, to recommend the book based on who I think would most like to read it.

Who would most like to read Hamlet's Blackberry? Someone who would not think to pick it up. Someone who has never thought about designing a "philosophy for building a good life" but who lives from moment to digital moment, rarely reading a printed book. Someone who would text in the theater (and surely there's a special circle of hell for those folks).


FreshHell said...

Does he assume that everyone is "connected" 24/7? Because I missed that urge somewhere along the line. That and the lack of money to keep up with the Blackberrys (our new Jones) and have found that I still do pretty okay without all the devices. I am annoyed by changes that assume EVERYBODY has moved with the times. The lack of public phones, for example, assume everyone has a (working) cellphone. What if you've lost it? What if your purse has been stolen? I've had a computer with wifi capabilities for only a few days and while its nice and will make things easier for me when I travel, I know that its possible to live without it. I can travel and read an actual book. I can write on actual paper with an actual pen and not feel like I've been cast out to sea.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Now that I think back on the book a bit more, I think you're right in the idea that Powers is not especially revelatory in what he suggests. But when I read it, I think it worked because I needed someone to say the fairly obvious things he was saying -- we live in a world that expects you to be connected, but it's ok to choose not to be once in awhile. It was middle ground type of book, not a champion of technology, but not totally down on it either, and I liked that.

I think it probably is a book best for the people you suggest -- people who may not think to pick it up in the first place. I think of people like my roommate, who is constantly with her phone and cannot seem to be in a different room than it, and can see how she'd benefit from his reminders.

Trapunto said...

What you said about this books perhaps having come at the wrong time for you because you were trying hard to see things from your son's perspective made a lot of sense to me. I have noticed a difference between how my youngest brother, who is 15, interacts with other people as compared to the rest of my siblings, most of whom are in their 20's. It's hard not to mistake for rudeness or ineptitude--but I don't think that's what it is. I get that feeling with a lot of young-teens people, and I do put it down to a change in social habits brought about by electronic stuff.

Instead of a cure, I would just like someone to write a book describing what it is like to take for granted and nimbly orchestrate your existence around technology and technological-dependent pleasures. This would especially be the crowd who were born in the last 18? 16? years, and will be the people in charge when I'm getting old. What is force-feeding to me is simply food to them; I would like to know what that existence feels like, and what automatic thought processes come with it, so I know how to interpret these people. Cory Doctorow does it a little, but I think he is imposing a slightly older social model on his descriptions--as well as writing fiction. I wouldn't dare to make a contest of it, but I am probably the least device-ed person reading this blog. My age isn't even my excuse. Just my personality.

kittiesx3 said...

Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I'm one of the overconnected you guys are railing against :-)

I've done the pendulum swing from no connection (didn't own a cell phone despite working for a wireless company until 2002) to checking email and texts all the time to where I am today--more moderate but I'm sure I'm still plugged in too much for folks here.

But that's OK with me because that's what works for me. Text was the primary way Kent and I stayed connected during the long nine months we had to live apart waiting for the damn house to sell. We also used email and voice over IP and regular phone calls but far away, text was (and is) our primary method to stay connected in all the little ways our marriage needs.

I will confess when someone rails against e-readers or says they read real books, I get cranky. My books are real too, I just get them on my Kindle which means I can carry them all when I travel.

bermudaonion said...

This book sounds like nothing like I would expect from the title. I think too much parental control can be a bad thing and actually think maybe there is too much of it in our society right now, so I would probably disagree with some of the author's theories too.

FreshHell said...

I don't like to read lots of text on a screen. I find paper books easier and more portable. If I were doing lots of research or if I was in college, I can see how downloading textbooks and other books onto a Kindle would be great. But, for regular reading, I prefer the paper. Nothing against the readers, just my preference. Plus, I can pick up used books for almost no money. Whereas, almost anything I'd want to download would cost me more.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, he assumes that we all believe that more connected is better, so 24/7 would be best. You and me and anyone else who has Amish/Luddite tendencies are not a big part of his world view.

Kim, yes, a middle ground type of book. There are people who need that, at least in a Kindle edition!

Trapunto, my son is turning 15 at the end of next month. He and his sister do interact with technology differently from the way older people do. I find most of these things a relief, though; somehow I was ahead of my time in not being able to stand watching tv on a timetable (this show is on at 8 every Wednesday, so that's when you've got to watch it) or talking into a telephone (I MUCH prefer texting).

But, of course, I'm like Cory Doctorow (wow, I'm flattering myself here) in that I'm an older person who is able to enjoy some of the younger peoples' pleasures, although I don't describe them as well as he does.

In terms of understanding how younger people think, one of the most arresting areas of interest my daughter (17) and her friends explore is TV Tropes. They talk in tropes--as my whole family does now, to some extent--and it's amusing to me that she's gotten something like an old-fashioned rhetorical education from the internets!

Elizabeth, I'm not railing against the over-connected. In fact, I think I'm saying that I don't see some of what he identifies as a problem.

I do like print books better than reading from my laptop screen, but as I've said before, if I were working more I'd afford a Kindle.

Kathy, I agree about too much parental control, what with the Tiger Mother and helicopter parents. The other day I was at the walk-in haircut place with my son and was appalled at the conversation I overheard after a mother with a toddler who was acting up left. There are parents who seem to me entirely too self-congratulatory about their child-rearing methods, and I think the Venn diagram of the self-congratulatory and those in favor of corporal punishment has entirely too much overlap.

FreshHell, a friend of mine has let me play with her Kindle, and it doesn't give me the same kind of eyestrain that a backlit computer screen gives you.

Anonymous said...

I'm all in favor of living the good life, but I don't seem to have the problems that vex Mr. Powers. Or if I do, I guess I'm not aware of it. No, I don't.

Jeanne said...

ReadersGuide, another of Powers' suggestions is that you spend time outside to disconnect from screens. You already do that; it doesn't surprise me that you don't have the kinds of problems he describes.

Another way of defining his ideal audience is to say that they're the kind of people who can't ignore a ringing telephone.

Last night I watched a movie called He's Just Not That Into You with the teenagers, and was amused by the scenes in which a character couldn't quit checking all different kinds of messages, hoping for a call from a romantic interest. That's Powers' reader, right there.

Jodie said...

It's a shame because I would like a special circle for people who text in the cinema (or under the table while you're talking to them, or while at traffic lights) but as we would have to put one of my oldest friends there I had better hope there isn't;) I've resisted this whole smartphone thing because I have managed to keep up a really disconnected relationship with my phone (keep it turned on silent all the time so I don't have to answer calls, because like you I don't like talking into phones)but I'm scarily addicted to internet and if I could get proper graphical, pretty net on something I took everywhere with me I might never get offline.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, This is one reason you're a better member of the blogging community than I am! I'm better than I used to be about connecting more often, but I need periods where I turn everything off.

The picture of a world where everybody is always online was in the animated movie Wall-E. I still think of them zooming around in their jet chairs drinking through straws and staring at their screens when I'm in line for popcorn at the movies (cinema to you Brits) and I see people texting and buying enormous cups of soda.

Jenners said...

This does seem a little too black and white. I think most people can find a balance between "unconnected" and "connected." There are good and bad things for both.

Jeanne said...

Jenners, I guess some people have trouble finding that balance, and so they need advice from...a book?