By David Ryan Polgar
If I had a Bitcoin for every time I saw the word Luddite in 2014—well, I’d be a momentary millionaire. Even though the topic of healthy tech consumption has gained a lot of attention in recent years, it is still common to classify people as either a gadget-obsessed early-adopting tech fundamentalist or a tech-bashing Thoreau-worshipping Luddite. The general public, of course, is more complex.
“We tend to think in binary terms,” says William Powers. “There seems to be the sense that you have to be in one bucket. Most people are not in either bucket.”
Powers is the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Since being released in 2010, the book has served as the foundational source and inspirational well for countless other books and articles on the subject. Numerous colleges and universities have selected it as a Common Read, and Powers has established himself as a leading voice for the burgeoning movement.
Consider all the various viral videos concerning tech balance in the last year: I Forgot My Phone, Look Up, and, most recently, a song about unplugging featuring Bert from Sesame Street. The tailwinds have clearly picked up since Hamlet’s Blackberry first hit the shelves.
“The response has changed since 2010,” states Powers. “At first it was dumbfounded—it was so against the tide.” According to the author, “There has been an awakening. People are realizing that there is a smarter way.”
Society, it seems, may have reached a breaking point with digital technology. “We reached the point where we were working for the machine,” says Powers.
The problem, as you can imagine, is not really the technology but how we are using it. An underlying theme of Hamlet’s Blackberry is the need to accept responsibility for the life we live, as opposed to merely scapegoating the screens. If we feel that we are working for the machine, as Powers mentions, we should question WHY we’re entrapped. Have we accepted our busyness as the new normal? Can we change the trajectory we’re on?
Now and then it occurs to us that we could do better, reconfigure our commitments and schedules so they’re not so crazy and we can breathe. But no sooner do we have this thought then we dismiss it as futile. The mad rush is the real world, we tell ourselves. We’re resigned to it in the same grim way that people in repressive societies become resigned to their lack of freedom. Everyone lives like this, racing and skimming their way through their days. We didn’t drop the anvil, and there’s nothing we do about it except soldier on, make the best of it.
There is a popular misconception that criticism regarding our tech use is merely a generational difference—older people not understanding younger people. The term that we often apply to the youngest generation, Digital Natives, “suggests that they live in an all-digital environment all the time and want to be there. The young people are more nuanced,” Powers claims. “These tools are a part of life, but they’re [young people] not machines and they don’t want to be plugged in 24/7.”
The natives are restless. “Younger people,” says Powers, “have really been open to critiquing technology.”
In certain respects, we may be reacting to the unfulfilled grandiose promise that digital tech and social networks implies: more friends, more time, and more fun. Many of us, the young generation especially, may feel a sense of anxiety, alienation, and claustrophobia that wasn’t supposed to exist in this brave new world. The Future According to Zuckerbeg and Schmidt sounded like a utopian paradise. “Like all utopian visions, it was never going to fully deliver.”
Hamlet’s Blackberry is an essential read because it switches the power dynamic from the technologists that are selling us products and moves it to your own internal compass. How do you reach a healthy equilibrium between your inner self and external self? Have you focused too much attention on the external and not enough internally?
You quickly realize while reading Hamlet’s Blackberry that it is not focused merely on offering quick solutions to maintaining a healthy digital lifestyle. It is a soulful book filled with personal stories, useful metaphors, and insightful historical context that frames the issue as a deep, existential struggle. It is a struggle that has occurred with every major technological disruption throughout our history. What does it mean to be human? How can we not only live, but live deeply?
Hamlet’s Blackberry details the struggle that Powers went through to find his own personal balance. As a father and a husband, he wanted to ensure that his family was connected on a meaningful level. Too often, however, an overreliance on screens led to reduced state of being.
The point isn’t that the screen is bad. The screen is, in fact, very good. The point is the lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else, and the strange absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces…We were living for the screen and through the screen, rather than for and through each other.
The problem was that his internal/external balance was off kilter.
“You have to build an inner life where you don’t need to seek constant affirmation,” says Powers. “When we are able to stand alone and be happy we bring more to relationships.”
Powers is optimistic that we are headed towards a positive future. A future where we learn how to incorporate technology into our lives in a manner that offers enrichment, not escapism. “We are learning to emphasize the positive and de-emphasize the negative. We’re learning not to be dependent on technology.”
The crucial step towards creating a good life in the digital age is realizing the very power, and responsibility, that we have to mold technology to create a fulfilling life, not just allowing technology to mold our life. “We tend to forget when we create a new device,” says Powers, “that the magic is in us.”
David Ryan Polgar is a writer, speaker, and educator based in Connecticut. As a Tech Ethicist he examines the ethical, legal, sociological, and emotional impact that technology has on our lives.