Stacks, The London Library

Hamlet’s BlackBerry just came out in the UK, from Scribe Publications. (I never expected this book would have such a long life, or be published in so many countries and languages.) And the London-based Financial Times has a piece that nicely captures the essence of my message.

Writer Maija Palmer includes a quotation that appears in my Gutenberg chapter. It’s a personal favorite I often use in my talks, a 15th-century scholar denouncing the hot new technology of his day, printed books. In the decades immediately after the invention of the movable-type printing press, some believed mass-produced books were a disaster and a menace.

Wow, were they ever wrong.

My point is that fear and loathing of the new device is a common feature of tech revolutions, and just as dumb as mindless utopianism. Or dumber. At least the utopians are optimistic. I prefer the sunny side of the street.

Here’s an excerpt from the FT piece:

Then there is the growing number of guidebooks and “digital detox” diets to help people kick the plugged-in habit. One such book – ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ by William Powers – was recently published in the UK, following up on its publication in the US three years ago. Its arguments about the need to take back control are even more urgently needed today.

Powers’s solution is simple: we must create places and times in our lives where technology can be switched off.

It is not that all new technology is bad, per se. People have always found adjusting to new communication technologies difficult. Socrates was anxious about the move from a purely oral tradition to writing on scrolls. After Gutenberg kicked off the age of the printed book in the mid-1400s, the Italian scholar Niccolò Perotti wrote:

“Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.”

Powers points out that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have had the 16th-century version of a BlackBerry. No self-respecting Renaissance nobleman was without his “table book”, a pocket-sized almanac of plaster-coated pages written on with a stylus and erased with a sponge. It was useful for jotting down appointments, lists, information and thoughts.

Powers maintains that new technologies are life-enhancing. Gutenberg not only opened up knowledge for greater numbers of people, but allowed them the novel experience of reading silently to themselves. When books were more scarce, reading was mostly aloud and to a group. Similarly, our digital connections are useful, entertaining and informative: it is immoderate use that turns them toxic.

But how can one bear to cut the electric umbilical cord? Powers experimented with disabling the family’s internet router at weekends. Though his family initially missed their gaming sites and email, they grew to enjoy the interruption-free family time. Powers says he returned to the frenetic digital life in a calmer state of mind each Monday, and experienced an increase in productivity.

There are other examples of people who thrive without a constant digital connection. Bill Gross, chief investment officer of Pimco, is famous for not having a cellphone. Writer Paul Miller took a year’s break from the internet and said he found himself more focused and with more free time than ever in his adult life. Even Stephen Fry, one of the UK’s most prolific microbloggers, takes regular holidays from Twitter.