Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hamlet's Blackberry

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Today I took a restorative walk in a local forest - it was warm today for the second time this summer, and I felt embraced by the coolness of walking in the trees. 

I just finished reading the book Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers, which is an in depth look at how to find balance in this ever-more-connected world. I had previously read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. These two books are extremely thoughtful investigations into the negative impact that the internet has had on our lives, but say very little about the benefits and how to maintain them while minimizing the negative. I think both the Bauerlein and Carr books have their place - when people are unaware of the dangers of their behaviour, it is necessary to first get their attention by shouting. And I think the Bauerlein and Carr books very effectively get people's attention on this issue.

Where Powers' book differs is in his acknowledgement that we have undoubtedly benefited from the extended connectedness that the internet has brought into our lives, while at the same time highlighting that we often feel a loss of control, and unknowingly are giving up important habits and ways of relating to one another in the process. He uses historical references from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau and finally McLuhan to illustrate the challenges that each of these individual's respective times faced when a new technology was introduced that increased the busyness and information overload of lives, and the measures they took to counterbalance that impact. There's a great deal of food for thought in this book, and Powers ends with some general suggestions for finding a personal prescription for balance in this ever-more connected world. He ends by giving a specific example used by his own family to place the usefulness of the internet within the context of living in a way that allows for deep thinking and doing meaningful things together.
Reading the book caused me to reflect on my strongest memories of happy times. They revolve around periods of time such as when I was in graduate school, immersed in research and writing my thesis. Without computers and the internet, literature research was done by hand, and I summarized the key points of each paper I read on 3x5 index cards. When I came to write my thesis, all the information I needed was organized on the cards and I wrote the thesis out by hand in 3 week (I recently found the original handwritten manuscript). A secretary typed it all out on an IBM selectric typewriter. It sounds cumbersome in today's world of on-line searching and downloading of citations and pdf files into Endnote; yet I know I had a better command of the information back then that was facilitated by the writing out of the information on those cards and the physicality of the organized cards was something that I could visualize while looking for relevant information. When I tell today's graduate students about writing my thesis in 3 weeks, they are stunned - it typically takes them upwards of 12 months to write a thesis these days (my own writing skills have deteriorated through computer use as well).

I also have many fond memories of our postdoctoral experience living in Germany in the late 1970s - we kept in touch with family by letters; stores were open only a half day on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays, so we spent many weekends walking in town, visiting nearby places, having coffee and pastries, getting together with friends and sitting on the sofa together reading. And my favourite recent Christmas memories are from years when it was just the two of us, and we would spend the days with a cozy fire reading books we'd given each other as gifts, going for walks, making good meals.

The great thing is that my ability to do these things is still with me (really, with all of us). Powers suggests that bringing these things back into life is best done in a positive way - doing it because it feels right and will be beneficial, rather than doing it for negative reasons. And in doing so, it also leaves room for retaining the benefits of the internet in our lives while clearing out the mindless habits that internet use often invokes.

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