'Hamlet's BlackBerry': To Surf Or Not To Surf? Welcome to the 21st century, where we're all connected, all the time. Whether or not this is a good thing is the subject of Hamlet's Blackberry, a new book by William Powers that takes a magnifying glass to the "conundrum of connectedness" -- and looks to the past to find ways to deal with information overload.

'Hamlet's BlackBerry': To Surf Or Not To Surf?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128364111/128636951" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This next story is for those of us who find ourselves answering emails on our BlackBerry even as we chatter away on our iPhones; those of us who find our right index fingers twitching on the mouse even as we type, just itching to click on something new every few seconds. It's for those of us, in other words, who without even realizing it, have signed up for a life where we're basically all connected, all the time.

Now, whether this is a good thing is the subject of William Powers' new book. It's called "Hamlet's BlackBerry."

And, William Powers, early in the book you describe a scene that rang so true to me. It's, you were standing at a crosswalk in Manhattan. Tell me what happened.

Mr. WILLIAM POWERS (Author, "Hamlet's BlackBerry"): I was standing at a crosswalk and I looked around me, and there were five to eight people, maybe as many as 10 people, everyone staring into a digital device - basically staring into their palm. And here I was in New York, the most fantastic city in the world - so much to look at, to see and hear - and everybody around me essentially wasn't present.

KELLY: In this very busy city...

Mr. POWERS: Yes.

KELLY: ...but all in their own little world.

Mr. POWERS: Yes. You know, and these gadgets are wonderful and they do fantastic stuff for us all day long, but to miss out on your surroundings all the time, which I think we increasingly do, I really question that.

KELLY: That's a scene that many of us who live in big cities or travel to big cities can relate to these days. What struck me, in your book, was that this is actually not a totally new phenomenon, this feeling of being overwhelmed with technology and communication. You don't think, for example, about ancient Rome - Seneca wandering around being overwhelmed by all the communication demands. In your book you write, maybe he was.

Mr. POWERS: It's true. You know, in trying to solve this problem, which I call the Conundrum of Connectedness; this idea that we have these devices, we love them, they do so much for us and yet they also impose this burden on us and are beginning to pull us away from stuff that really matters.

In trying to solve it, I looked to the past to see if there were other times when people faced a similar challenge that we could learn from. And I found there really were. There were quite a number of times. Whenever a new technology comes along that fills everyday life with new information, people feel a bit overwhelmed and can even become addicted to it.

And, indeed, the Roman philosopher Seneca felt so burdened by the connectedness of his own time and the crazy kind of pace of life in ancient Rome. He talked about he and his friends suffering from, quote, "the restless energy of a hunted mind." The inability to get away from their connected lives, much as we can't seem to get away from our screens.

KELLY: And in his case, what was it that was so overwhelming?

Mr. POWERS: Well, it was the idea of empire which had pulled everyone together very tightly, and people were living in these cities that were bigger than cities anyone had ever lived in before. There was noise, and there was just busyness. There was more work, there was paperwork - it was papyrus work at the time, but it was paperwork. There was bureaucracy. There was just a lot of incoming.

Now, living in the electronic age, we think god, that incoming must have been so slow and manageable. But to them, as today, it was a new thing. It was a major step up in, basically, the hecticness of everyday life and they had trouble managing it.

KELLY: Flash forward a few centuries and you have another example I love. This is Shakespeare's time, when the printing press was suddenly flooding people with all of this printed material that they hadn't, obviously, had access to before. And you write about how in his great work, "Hamlet," Shakespeare actually gives Hamlet a device to deal with this. Tell us about that.

Mr. POWERS: Yes, there's a point in the play, early in the play, where Hamlet meets the ghost and the ghost has this terrible news about Hamlet's father having been murdered. And Hamlet is so overwhelmed by this news - this new piece of information that he's not sure what to do with it. And he talks about how cluttered and distracted his mind is, actually, much like our minds today.

And he reaches into his pocket - or the clothing he wears - and he pulls out something he refers to as his tables. And this moment tends to go by in the play when we're watching it because we think of a table like the table we eat breakfast on. But, in fact, tables in that time were a new gadget that people used to sort of bring order to their everyday lives. And it was basically an erasable, plaster-like surface inside of a little booklet. You could write notes during the day and then wipe them away clean at night.

So that in a sense, the burden of the printed word, which is what the information overload at that time was, could be wiped away. And this new gadget, interestingly, was a way of dealing with overload.

KELLY: Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.

Mr. POWERS: Yes.

KELLY: Because the flipside here is we all love all this technology. I mean I love my iPhone. You could not pry it from my cold, dead hands. So what are we to do?

Mr. POWERS: We do. In fact, early in the book I have a chapter called "The Magic of Screens," in which I talk about how amazingly magical they are and the great things they do. I mean with a few keystrokes, I can bring up an old manuscript from the British Museum. You know, that is miraculous.

The trouble is when so much information is coming at us all day long, we don't have any gaps, any breaks in which to make sense of it, do something new, creative with it, enjoy it, really. And the same with our relationships; if we're constantly toggling between people on Facebook and texts and all these new ways of connecting all day long, and we never have a sustained connection, it's not really connectedness.

So, my aim in the book is to help teach people develop new strategies where we're just smarter about this, where we connect more wisely and get more out of it.

KELLY: I guess the obvious solution is we should just unplug, turn off all these devices. I have a friend, actually, who's trying to write a book - and he's just paid $10 for a software program to block his Internet access, so he can actually get some writing done. I mean is this what it's come to?

Mr. POWERS: It has come to that. There are all kinds of emerging answers like that, and they are very much in sync with my message. I think we've only just begun to recognize that connectedness serves us best when it's balanced by a little bit of disconnectedness. And it's all about that. It basically about having some of A and then some of B, and they actually offset and enrich each other.

My family has a ritual where we disconnect on the weekends. We call it the Internet Sabbath.

KELLY: Disconnect, turn off what? All modems...

Mr. POWERS: We turn off the household modem.

KELLY: Okay.

Mr. POWERS: And we don't have smart phones, so therefore we can't get at our inboxes for the whole weekend. We can't do Web surfing. We can still call. And it's wonderful. And interestingly the effects of it - both on our family life, our work lives, everything - carry over into the week, even when we're connected we can feel the benefits of having been disconnected a couple days ago. It really helps.

It's just about that simple word balance. But as a lot of people can attest it's very hard to pull away. You have to know why you're doing it, and really believe.

KELLY: Well, William Powers, thanks so much.

Mr. POWERS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That's William Powers. His new book is "Hamlet's BlackBerry." And you can read an excerpt from William Powers' new book on our website at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.