Ancient lessons on focus for the digital world

20130430_Hamlet's_BlackBerry_CoverReviewing “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”, a book by William Powers

Abstract: Computers have made our lifes easier connecting us to people and content in the outside world, but permanently managing this connectedness makes us also suffer from busyness and lack of focus. William Powers reaches out into the past seeking for guidance from thinkers who struggled with similar issues. New media have always created this ambivalence between enrichment and deprivation, and Powers has found seven thinkers reflecting on this in some way: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan.

A book on anything related to the digital age can rapidly become outdated. “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” by William Powers came out in 2010, but the only thing the author would have to update is the name of the device in its title. Today, it would have to be Hamlet’s iPhone or Android, since the BlackBerry has lost its glory as the leading gadget.

The issue the book presents has only become more current, since it was published. It is about the conundrum of connectedness, as the author calls it: our computers and mobile devices have made our lives easier in many ways by connecting us with content and people in the outside world, but they also make us incredibly busy permanently managing our connectedness. As a result, we often struggle to focus on the important things and lose depth in what we do.

As a former staff writer of The Washington Post who has written on media and technology, Powers doesn’t simply blame the tools for making us busy. He understands that it’s us keeping ourselves busy with the tools. So, he argues, we need a new way of thinking about the tools, “a new digital philosophy […] that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses” (p. 4). I would certainly support this insight, but it’s neither new nor interesting enough to warrant the time reading 267 pages.

What makes the book interesting is that Powers reaches out into the past seeking for guidance from thinkers who struggled with similar issues. New media have always created this ambivalence between enrichment and deprivation, and Powers has found seven thinkers reflecting on this in some way: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan. What kind of advice can they provide to our always-on generation suffering from busyness and lack of focus?

Most of their solutions involve the creation of distance needed so as to separate ourselves from the crowd and give room to reflection and focus on what is really relevant. For the oral culture in Plato’s (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) age, connectedness was about being busy talking with people in the city. Powers calls Plato’s “Phaedrus” to witness how physical distance from the crowd helped orators to refocus and how the invention of written language helped to offload information, freeing speakers’ minds from permanent memorizing.

However, being away from it all doesn’t help when the crowd follows you on your mobile device. If you can’t escape the noise outside, Seneca (ca. 4 BC – AD 65) offers a technique to create distance from the inside. Surrounded by the noise of ancient Rome, Seneca managed to create inner distance through the act of writing, impressively documented in the letters to his friend Lucilius. Writing allows for a private experience of reflection, but it also needs the discipline of a Stoic “to force […] [the] mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it”, as Seneca put it (101).

Similarly, silent reading opens the gate to inner reflection and the development of individual thinking. However, as Powers points out, for many this introspection was first enabled by Gutenberg’s (1400-1468) invention of the printing press. And it took even three hundred years more before general alphabetization took hold and large numbers of people were enabled to go on an inner journey through private reading and writing. Nowadays, with both media consumption and production becoming more and more a social experience, it is worth remembering what an achievement it was for humanity to allow for privacy in this process. Today, on the very devices we are using to read and write, a stream of notifications on what other people “like” and think is continuously interrupting our privacy before we can finish our own thoughts.

We shouldn’t blame the devices, though; they are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem. Take for instance Hamlet’s BlackBerry, as Powers calls a gadget which was fashionable in the Shakespeare (1564-1616) era. It was an erasable tablet to take notes people used to better manage their busy lives. While it might come as a surprise to us inhabitants of the World Wide Web, we are not the first suffering from information overload. Many of Shakespeare’s literate contemporaries felt unable to cope with the amount of information newly spread by the printing press. So, they used these carry-on tablets to keep track of pieces of information they didn’t want to lose on the way. At the same time, information not standing the test could be wiped out: “In an epoch when so many words were committed permanently to the printed page – more than any one mind could handle – this gadget moved in exactly the opposite direction” (p.151). Ultimately, Hamlet’s BlackBerry was a tool to manage your memory, clearing the busy mind and finding what really matters.

Tools and techniques can be very useful, but only when guided by the right judgment. Powers found three more historical sources to help with that: Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan.

“All new tools require some practice before we can become expert in the use of them”, Ben Franklin (1706-1790) once wrote (173). It is not uncommon that we overdo things when they are new. We overdid e-mail and we are currently overdoing social communication. Prohibition is a typical reaction to that: as a result, we have seen “no e-mail Fridays” and we are now seeing social websites being blocked by employers. The issue with prohibition is that it’s just a negative statement, it doesn’t provide a positive incentive for change of behavior, and it doesn’t acknowledge the good in habits, if and when not overdone. Ben Franklin understood that and created a pragmatic approach accentuating the gains when stopping things rather than threats or punishment. “You have to see that there is more to be gained by resisting the impulse than giving in” (p. 165), Powers summarizes. Franklin was a very social person and easily distracted by the many things on his mind. To keep himself focused, he created a list of 13 virtues to live by, combined with behavioral guidelines for attaining them. I’d like to quote the first two, since they would dramatically improve social online communication, if we would follow them (166):
1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or your self. Avoid trifling Conversation.
Franklin also walked that talk. For the rest of his life, he carried his list of virtues everywhere and for years he even tracked on how he did against them. Some of the best social media policies we know work in a way similar to Franklin’s list of virtues, and I believe that his pragmatic approach would benefit our online activities more than any kind of prohibition.

While Franklin created an inner compass with his list of virtues, Thoreau’s (1817-1862) strategy worked from the outside-in. At a time when railroad and telegraph drastically increased the complexity of life by connecting people to a degree unknown before, Thoreau felt a simplified lifestyle was needed to recover depth. He spent two years in a one-room cabin near Walden Pond, only three miles away from his hometown Concord, Massachusetts. Rather than completely withdrawing from his previous life, he boiled it down to its essentials. “[…] the Walden project was really an exercise in practical reengineering”, says Powers (p. 189). With connectivity rising, there is a danger to get caught in a network of distractions tying us to the surface. Powers quotes from a speech of Thoreau:

“Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. […] In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest numbers of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.” (p. 187-188)

Today, many gaze in admiration at the number of “friends” they have on social networks, but the number of those who feel lost in the chatter is rising, too. At Walden Pond Thoreau created a retreat remote enough for him to cut out the noise and reopen space for privacy and reflection. With today’s mobile networks reaching even the farthest places, a cabin out of the city won’t necessarily have the same effect, but Thoreau’s lesson is more subtle anyway: it is a practical lifestyle decision to reduce complexity and simplify your life to regain focus, whatever is needed to make that happen.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), the last thinker Powers presents in his book, brings a new perspective to the discussion. Rather than trying to inhibit unwanted media effects, he focused on how the media works. McLuhan viewed groundbreaking technologies such as the printing press as an extension of the human senses, changing human behavior to a degree that resulted in a new type of human being. Powers summarizes:

“Gutenberg’s invention had created what McLuhan called Typographic Man, whose mind operated in a linear, objective fashion that fostered individualism. Equipped with this left-brain way of thinking, this being had thrived for centuries and built up Western civilization. But McLuhan said he was about to be replaced. Because mass electronic media work on us in a different way from print, those technologies were creating a new person whose mind was less linear and individualistic, more group-oriented. In the future, he predicted, our minds would operate more like the oral mind of Socrates’ era.” (p. 198)

McLuhan thought that this shift had started with the telegraph, the first technology that extended the human central nervous system out into the world, connecting potentially everyone and everything happening across the planet. Today, over 2.4 bn people are interacting on the internet. With mobile computing growing aggressively and now getting even closer to the body through wearables such as Google Glass, there is yet another layer of connectivity on the horizon. While the Typographic Man was drawn into the inner world of private reading, the citizen of the Internet is never alone, the crowd is always with him influencing the way he thinks, even while reading. In this regard, today’s netizen is indeed in a similar situation as the oral mind of the Socrates era. Like on the agora – the central gathering place in ancient Greek cities where social, political and commercial matters were discussed – everyone has a voice on social networks. But many voices can create a lot of noise and an overload of information, so that it’s hard to focus on what is relevant. As in our first case above, Plato conveyed in his Phaedrus how Socrates left the city to cut off the crowd, so that he could focus on the task at hand, and how he discovered scripture as a way to offload his mind from memorizing everything.

By reflecting on the history of the media McLuhan helped us to understand media effects and better deal with them as a result. By writing “Hamlet’s Blackberry” William Powers acted in the spirit of McLuhan, providing some powerful historical cases for us to consider when struggling with unwanted media effects in our time.

However, it also has to be said that Powers doesn’t deliver on the mighty promise in the subtitle of the book “A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age”. From a systematical perspective, Powers didn’t develop a concept for right or wrong conduct or a clear idea of what a good life in the digital age actually means. From a historical perspective, the selection of cases seems eclectic and anglophile. Other than McLuhan, media theorists of the 20th century – such as Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze or Niklas Luhmann to name but a few – are not even mentioned. The whole book is written from a single user perspective, there is no analysis of social dynamics or power structures in media. It looks more like the personal quest of William Powers looking for help in his own struggle with the Internet crowd. And he did walk his talk, trying some of the strategies he described in his own life. Which is all fine, it is just not “a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age”.

Nevertheless, with the right expectations set, I do recommend this book to all who feel overwhelmed by their online connections to the crowd. Powers’ journalistic skills made it an easy read providing access to some classical theories and the practical guidance they have to offer today.

Georg Kolb