Reader reviews for Hamlet's BlackBerry by William Powers

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The problem with modern society is that we assume that every technological advance is beneficial. Thankfully, there are several books out that make us think about that idea, and Hamlet's Blackberry is one of them.The book looks back through history at different technological leaps to see how they were received and how they were abused, pointing out that anything can be used for good or bad, depending on who is doing the using. That's the important thing to remember when evaluating technology -- "Is this going to make my life easier? And what am I going to do with the time I am saving?"You could do the ironic thing and get this as an e-book, but whatever you do, get this and read it. It will encourage you to have a little perspective, and maybe you'll even step away from the phone/computer/tablet and do something new. Interact with real, live, people.
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I'm not usually a fan of What-Ails-Society-and-How-to-Fix-It books, so Hamlet's BlackBerry was a pleasant surprise. Granted, the first two chapters weren't very promising. It took a while before he made a point that really resonated with me, and that point was this: our degree of connectedness (ranging from perfect solitude to complete immersion the crowd) is up to us to decide, for ourselves, at any given moment. It seems like a "well, duh" kind of point, until you think about how often we become the tools of our tools. For example, I know I don't need to check my e-mail 18 times a day. But every time that little envelope icon appears on my smartphone, I tap in and check it. (Sidebar: it's usually ALA spam.) Furthermore, when reading e-mail this way, I rarely pause to take the time to compose a thoughtful response. The phone has enabled me to be more connected, more often, but the price for that connectedness has been a decline in reflection and thoughtful engagement. One particular comment leaped off the page at me:"The question now is how truly individual -- as in bold, original, unique -- you can be if you never step back from the crowd. When we think and write from within our busyness, surrounded by countless other voices, too often the result is reactive, derivative, short-shelf-life stuff."Highly, highly recommended for anyone who feels like they're spending too much time glued to screens.
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This is a great read! Taking examples from philosophers from the past like Plato, Socrates, and Thoreau the author shows how they dealt with the new technologies of their time and the busyness it created. I was looking for some insight on how to better manage the screens in my life since I am surrounded by them in my work and pulled by their never ending tug in my personal life as well. The main idea is that for the most part we can control how and when we choose to use technology in our lives and he gives great insight on the philosophies of disconnecting and going inward when we desire.
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I started this book rather in the mood of a sullen child told to put away her toys, for that is to some degree the message of the author. His thesis is that our now current state of constant connectedness via computer and mobile phones leads to shallowness of thought, an inability to focus and concentrate. The author gradually won me over by his arguments, however, as it is a sensible argument hard to refute. I especially enjoy the last half of the book where he discusses seven philosophers or technologists who have wrestled with the problem of a world too much with us and how to provide one's self with time free of distraction and able to ..."strike a healthy balance between connected and disconnected, crowd and self, the outward life and the inward one". (p. 210) Powers also talks about the experience of his own family in going disconnected on the weekends and how it has deepened what they do together. He is concerned that we be aware of the need for balance now, before the habit of times devoted to such balance is lost. A book worth reading.
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I was afraid that Powers was going to go the easy route and condemn our connected gadgets. Instead, he accepts that we are so enamored of them because they have significant advantages. The issue is how to learn to use them in ways that let us continue to reflect, think deeply, and develop our inner lives. He doesn't do much to provide realistic answers. What shines in this book is that he revisits points in history where technological changes have brought their own crises to thinking people. We've worked through change before, and we will again.
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Wonderful in its use of history to explain how we've been here before.
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