Life after digital dependency – Hamlet’s Blackberry

Photo by Joeshoe (Flickr)

Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Summer 2011. I’m sitting in the garden with a book on one of those still, warm afternoons that are perfect for outdoors living. But something keeps tugging at my consciousness, and I’m finding it hard to concentrate. After a moment, I realise the anxiety has something to do with my e-life; a sense of something left undone, or more needing to be done. I’ve been on the computer all morning, have dealt with my email correspondence, tweeted and sent a LinkedIn invite or two. Yet still there’s this sense that, rather than being in the here-and-now, enjoyably immersed in my chosen activity, I should be back at the screen, initiating more communication or checking to see if someone is trying to communicate with me.

The phenomenon of digital dependency is the central problem addressed by William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy, a book published in paperback for the first time in the UK tomorrow, although it’s been out a year in the States. It’s publication comes the week after a new survey by communications watchdog Oftel finds that over a third of British adults consider themselves ‘highly addicted’ to their smartphones, along with 60% of teenagers.

Powers is a US-based technology journalist with a philosophical bent, and his book – the very one I was trying to read the afternoon I detected my own digital dependency – diagnoses a culture infected by ‘digital maximalism’, the unconscious assumption that the more we are ‘connected’, the better.

What distinguishes his analysis from other recent publications, which largely deal with the impact of digital technologies on social behaviour, is its focus on how, if unchecked, they can lead to the loss of inwardness, or what he calls ‘depth’. Building on a natural human craving for more and more stimuli, the development of a ‘digital consciousness’ means we get less out of life rather than more.

In one particularly clear example, he recounts how he called his mother on his smart phone while on the way to visit her, rejoicing in his new-found ease of communicating with a loved one made. But the true joy of the conversation, he goes on, only comes about in the pause for reflection that follows it – something precluded by the rapid switching and multi-tasking that so often accompanies the use of digital technologies.

To counteract the development of a digitally-induced short attention span, Powers calls on some great thinkers to give lessons on how to live well in hyperconnected times. Thus – rather in the manner of British philosopher Alain de Botton – he derives distance from Plato, detachment from the crowd from Seneca, and positively-motivated self-denial from Benjamin Franklin. Thoreau is recruited to provide a 21st-century ‘Walden zone’ – the idea of the home as a place of sanctuary and simplicity – while Marshal McLuhan’s updating of the myth of Narcissus explains the particular lure technical gadetry has for humans. Following the wisdom of these ‘philosophers of the screen’, Powers’ offers his own recommendation of an internet Sabbath, observed by him and his family which involves, quite simply, going offline for the weekend.

It’s all beautifully done, with the learning presented lightly and the points made clearly. And its undeniable sagacity mean that, like the best self-help books, it’s one to return to when a top-up innoculation against digital addiction is needed. The book will stay on my shelf as a salutary reminder that we need to learn how to reap the benefits of digital technology while limiting its dangers.

In the interests of freeing ourselves from digital dependency, this will be the last blog post for August, although – in a healthy and self-aware manner – we will probably manage the odd tweet. Full service will resume in September.