(Image: Doug Johnson at The Blue Skunk Blog)

In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers quotes Henry David Thoreau who wrote that the man who constantly and desperately keeps going to the post office to check for correspondence from others “has not heard from himself in a long while.”

Sounds like a contemporary proclivity with so many who interrupt their lives to constantly check email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. “Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules,” says William Powers. “We’re like so many pinballs bouncing around a world of blinking lights and buzzers. There’s lots of movement and noise, but it doesn’t add up to much.”

“Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.'”

In her review of the book, Rasha Madkour points to Powers’ economic impact statement:

While recognizing that technology has made tasks like paying bills much easier and faster, Powers disputes the notion that it has made us more efficient. By interrupting our work to check our inboxes throughout the day, we’re actually becoming less productive because of the time it takes to refocus on the task at hand. Powers cites a study that found workers spending more than a quarter of their day managing distractions, adding up to $900 billion in economic loss in 2009.

High cost proclivities indeed.

Powers, interviewed by Bella English in the Boston Globe, tells the story behind the title of his book:

The more I connect digitally, the more I’m drawn to hard copy, so I decided to look at the history of paper and all related technologies. In reading Shakespeare, I stumbled on this moment where Hamlet pulls this thing out of his pocket that he called his tables. It was this fascinating example of a new technology where you wrote on pages (made of specially coated paper) with a stylus and you erased it at night. It was very much a 400-year-old version of what we’re doing today. It came to me that this thing was like his BlackBerry.

Focusing on seven individuals from previous eras, Powers explores how each of them used new inventions to make connecting with others easier. His point is clear: This is not a new problem. A more appropriate question to ask is how does a person live a life and use these tools while maintaining some balance.

Powers points to Benjamin Franklin who had a bit of social networking addiction. “He was constantly out and about, forming these new clubs and groups and associations, and he reached a point early in his life where he was just extended in too many directions, ” says Powers. “So he set up 13 goals he wanted to achieve. For example, he loved conversation, but he said he was going to aim for a little silence, too. It was not a case of withdrawing, but a case of looking for balance.”

Powers’ personal solution for seeking balance? Internet Sabbath. He and his family turn off the modem on Friday night and keep it off until Monday morning. Sounds a bit too fundamentalist for me, but I like the concept. Ten days spent hiking in Canada outside the range of cell or cyber felt pretty damn good.

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