In my previous posts, I explored feelings I’ve been struggling with, and the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world. I also began exploring the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers.
As I dig deeper into his book, I hope to learn more about his ideas about how to find balance, and find a better understanding for myself, of how to live a satisfying and fulfilling life in the age of globalization, as well as how it is already shaping and informing our cultures.
As I consider this subject, I reflected on all the different stories from the last couple decades that explore these themes. When the concept of cyberspace was still in its infancy, many (especially science fiction) writers explored what nature it may take, and the ramifications it may have for us. Michael Creighton explored these themes in many of his books, even slipping some philosophical ranting through the character Ian Malcolm in his popular books Jurassic Park and The Lost World. As we have become immersed in the reality of digital, global connection, academic work as well as fictional musings have only expanded. One instance is the anime Serial Experiments Lain, which centres on the exploration of the intersections of digital communication with personal identity and our understandings of reality.
In his book, Powers argues that though the present challenges of instant communication and constant gratification and communication of online interaction is unprecedented, the general problems and opportunities presented are not new to us. In fact, he argues that there are important lessons that can be learned through human history that can give guidance to a good life in our world today.
From the title of the book, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”, he presents a fascinating anachronism, the thought of Shakespeare’s antihero holding a modern mobile device. But, he argues, Hamlet actually depended on the equivalent of his time, a device I hadn’t heard of.
He points to this text from Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV, after Hamlet has spoken to the ghost of his father. The ghost of King Hamlet Senior exposes the truth of his death, from supposed poisoning by a bite, to having been murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and the new king. Hamlet slips into soliloquy after his father’s ghost fades away, saying:
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter:
First, Hamlet mentions the “distracted globe”, probably a triple-entendre on his own distracted mind, perhaps a world that is in its entirety distracted, and making a clever jab at the audience seeing the play performed in the Globe Theatre, whose minds by this time may have been wandering. Though this sense of being overwhelmed may seem to me and to us to be a modern situation and struggle, it may be that the bustle and clamour of Shakespeare’s London may have been just as trying!
But the part that Powers really wants to focus on is the table, also called a “writing table” or “table book”, basically the precursor to the modern notebook/tablet. These earlier notebooks used a coated parchment or paper, marked with a metal stylus, and could be later blotted out with a sponge to be used again. So in Hamlet’s speech, he thinks of his mind as a singular tome cluttered with meaningless trivia, scattered and unfocused, where everything except the knowledge of the “murder most foul” of his father must be wiped out.
Powers talks at length about how many people of Shakespearian England, and perhaps Shakespeare himself, relied on a table book to keep their helter-skelter lives in order. A common practice would be to have this impermanent object always close at hand, and to have a heavier journal kept at home. At the end of the day, the scribbles and notes of the day could be gone over again, carefully weighed and judged, and everything of value could be copied into the permanent journal, before the table was wiped clean. This practice could be an important time of introspection and examination of the busy days behind and ahead.
So in the same way, we may actually use our phones and mobile devices in this way, and bend the new technology to an old practice. But Powers notes that many (including himself) prefer an old paper-and-binding notepad for his notation. It could be simply nostalgia, he notes, but he thinks it goes far deeper. This is how he says it:
In conventional thinking about technology today, the fact that paper is a three-dimensional medium – that it’s made of atoms rather than bits and therefore takes up space – is considered its greatest weakness. Like you and me, it has a body and is stuck here in the physical world. My notebook can’t fly from here to China in seconds the way digital data can. However, just as the strength of digital devices (their ability to bring the crowd closer) is also their weakness, the weakness of paper can also be its strength.
As I took down notes as I read in a coffee shop, I found myself nodding along. I actually faced this conundrum, as I found myself transcribing notes onto my phone, my hand aching for the pen and paper I hadn’t thought to bring with me. The phone notebook is of course handy, but one of the major flaws I found was the alerts popping along the margins as I wrote and read, online messages vying against the quiet sounds of coffee poured and conversations around me. The alerts meant people reaching to contact me in a different medium than the world around me – these can be pleasant, but it can also be mentally taxing.
I found the format of the digital notepad interesting as I contemplated it from this new perspective. Though it exists in bits of code, the background looks like a yellow notepad found in every stationary store, the default font choice mimicking handwriting, to give it a seemingly personal quality. Phone keyboard sounds often come with the option of sounding like the harsh clack of a typewriter, many device covers are available that look like the pebbled and worn surfaces of a favourite leather notebook. And so on. Almost as if chosen to try to make the transition easier, warmer, more tangible, more personal.
So one of the first strategies may be simply to devise ways to disconnect as we reflect and write. This is obviously something I struggle with, and seems oddly ironic to say from an online blog, and as many of my favourite authors write blogs that I follow. However, it is good to have down time for personal reflection, contemplation and meditation, on ourselves as well as the information we take in.
Like all things, it is much easier to say than to do.
Powers reflects that we cannot cut ourselves off “cold turkey” from our digital dependencies and expect the results to go well. But he holds up the example of one exceptional man that created a personal method to reshape his nature, and create a pleasurable and productive life for himself, to astounding results. I’ll share his thoughts in my next post, and reflect on how this man’s method can inform us today in the digital age.