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Book Review: Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers

posted on 5 September 2011 | posted in Books

The central point of this book is that the human brain needs time to properly distil information; a period of reflection, of downtime. The problem today is that we don't have these moments, these "gaps" as Powers likes to call them. We're constantly moving from email to Facebook to browsing news websites to work and back to email again. When we leave work, we're tethered to our smartphones, constantly updating us on texts and reminders. When we get home, we're often back online again, surfing reddit or some other community site, or back to Facebook or whatever. The usual excuse is that TV is rubbish, so we might as well be online. I can agree that TV can be rubbish, but the internet is not doing us any good either.

Powers recommends we go on weekly "digital sabbaths" - days where we never venture online at all. These digital fasts have been tried by Powers and his family to great success - he says they're a lot closer now, and they actually look forward to logging off for the weekend (they choose the weekends for their sabbaths).

The book is timely for me as I've become very jaded with the internet over the last few months, particularly with news and opinion sites like reddit or any news sites in general. There's only so many opinions you can take, so many voices your mind can register. I was getting tired of the mob, the crowd, the people online. What's more, you can see on certain sites where user opinions come in shrink-wrapped, templated form, and how they're becoming less and less diverse - it seems people are assimilating to accepted viewpoints more and more. A news story happens, and the usual voices and opinions come out in response to it. It's all tiring from a psychological viewpoint. It's been stated a few times now that rather than broadening minds, the internet is instead narrowing them, as people of like-mind tend to visit sites that agree with their viewpoints - all they're doing is sharpening their arguments, and shrinking their view of life at the same time. Powers comes up with a good antidote with trying to keep up with the news: don't bother, just get it secondhand from your offline friends instead. Sound advice.

In Hamlet's Blackberry, Powers argues that the printed book was good for our inner-self, but the internet has all been about the outer-self. I couldn't agree more. Reading a book is a private activity. It's not crowd-sourced, or interactive, it's passive and solitary. It promotes reflection and a proper distilling of the information we're taking in. In the online world, it's a million voices, it's the mob mentality, it's multi-channel soundbites and rolling news stories, almost all of which do not NEED to be read by us. And think about what we GIVE to the internet - our opinions, our social network profiles, comments, status updates. All of these are hardly private thoughts - they're our external selves, talking to the crowd, seeking its acceptance and membership. It's just less "inner" time, and more and more "outer" time.

What interested me the most about Powers' assertion that too much information and too much screen-time leads to a lower quality life was how long it's taken me to realise this. It's not an obvious problem to most, because a lot of us see the internet as ONLY a good thing, and that we somehow SHOULD be keeping up-to-date with friends, family, our online communities, and news and events at all times. The psychological negative impact on losing our "gaps" - our quiet moments between screen-time - isn't an obvious thing if you are on the digitial treadmill. You can't miss what you don't have as they say. It's only after you reduce your hours online do you feel the tangible benefits: clarity of thought, better sleep, enjoying simpler things (whereas before, enjoyment had to involve greater stimulus), more outward focus to offline stimulus, and a corresponding drop in the desire to be online at all times. Let's face it, how many times have you aimlessly browsed the internet? Would Facebook have 750,000,000 members if it wasn't just a time-killer for many?

I highly recommend this book to anyone chained to the internet because of work and daily habits. It's a good wake-up call.