Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

By William Powers
Harper Perennial, 2010
240 pages

On the weekends I rarely check my e-mail.  It wasn't intentional that I started doing that, it just sort of happened. I get busy with my wife and kids and checking e-mail doesn't seem that important. Seriously, would you rather play with your three year old son, or spend an hour checking and responding to e-mail? It seems a bit of a no-brainer.

You have to realize I'm not some Luddite who hates technology. I've had e-mail for 18 years now. I was the second person I knew to get an e-mail account. I've got an active account on Twitter that I check regularly (@mrpuffin) and Twitter has helped me find a couple of long lost friends with whom I went to grad school. I like what the Internet can do for you.

But the thing is, I like to be in charge of what technology can do for me. I see an awful lot of people around me who are constantly e-mailing, tweeting, and texting. With smart phones you can have the Internet at your finger tips twenty four hours per day, seven days per week almost anywhere on earth. Many people appear to be chained to their phones, computers, or tablets and unable to let them go.

Yet curiously, because of that technology that allows us to open ourselves up to the world, many of us are shutting ourselves off to those around us. We've all seen someone busily texting people at work or school while ignoring the people in the room. We've seen the parent at McDonald's updating their Facebook status while the kids swing from the arm of the Ronald McDonald statue mere feet away. By being available to the world, those people are shutting themselves off to the people right next to them.

Hamlet's Blackberry suggests it doesn't have to be this way. While it's true that we often feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing world around us, we can take control. Powers surveys several periods in history that were faced with shifts in technology and examines how the people in these times tried to cope with the change. He examines how they embraced the technology, all the while finding ways to maintain a little time and space for family, and for themselves. Though Powers doesn't mention it, that same quietness gives us time to contemplate God and his creation. As Psalm 46 says, Be still, and know that I am God. When all the world is buzzing around us, it becomes awfully hard to enjoy being with God.

Powers ultimately suggests an "Internet sabbath" where we take a break from our computers, phones, and whatever else may be distracting us from the relationships we need to cultivate. In addition to giving us time to build those relationships, time apart from our technology can also lead to greater appreciation of it (and of its ultimate designer) when we return to it.

Powers is not suggesting technology is bad, we just have to be careful how we use it. While texting during a church service would be improper, I've heard of some pastors who encourage the congregants to text them questions during the service. It allows the pastor immediate feedback and he has the chance to answer difficulties in a timely way. Texting can be a negative, but in this case it allows the congregation to work together more effectively.

How do we manage technology? Powers doesn't have all the answers, but he makes an intriguing starting point in any attempt to understand how to manage our digital age.

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