Hamlet’s BlackBerry and Jon’s WP7

Until a few days ago I never owned, carried, or used a smartphone. That made me an anomaly not only in geek circles but, increasingly, among civilians too. I had always been the pioneer adopter. Now I found myself at dinner parties watching friends do the kinds of things that they always used to watch me do: Drift away from the conversation, engage with unseen interlocutors, jack into the planetary dataspace.

The experiment was less inconvenient for me that it would be for many others. I work from home, I’m rarely offline, and I could use my feature phone’s primitive data services in a pinch. Still, why? Because, as William Powers says in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, “The air is full of people.”

Someone you know has just seen a great movie. Someone else had an idle thought. There’s been a suicide bombing in South Asia. Stocks soared today. Pop star has a painful secret. Someone has a new opinion. Please support this worthy cause. He needs that report from you — where is it? Someone wants you to join the discussion…

The subtitle of Powers’ book is A practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. He wants us to question our “digital maximalism” — that is, our uncritical embrace of connectivity for its own sake. But he frames the question using a series of historical examples. Technology, he argues, has always played a complex dual role as a mediator between our inner lives and the crowd.

In the first example, from Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus leave the connectivity-amplifying city for a walk in the countryside, so they can enjoy a deep private discussion about a lecture that Lysias had given. But first Socrates wants Phaedrus to recite the lecture, and expects him to do so from memory. Phaedrus says he can’t, and produces a written copy. This was “the very latest communications technology” — one that Socrates was wary of, but that here enables an experience that combines withdrawal from the hive and engagement with it.

I’ve been reflecting on continuous partial attention, and the shallowing effects of cyber-augmentation, for a while now. It’s why I took a break from this blog, put my podcast on pause, and sat out the early phase of the smartphone era. But it was inevitable that I’d get a smartphone someday, and when Microsoft made an offer I couldn’t refuse, I did.

As it turned out, this past Friday was the day. On Saturday, driving down to Boston with the family for an outing, I rode shotgun so I could explore the new thing. But I was determined to use it in a balanced and appropriate way. Since we were headed to Cambridge, and since there’s an elmcity hub for Cambridge, I checked it and found out about the Horns and Antlers exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. That’s right up Luann’s alley so we decided to go.

Then, feeling slightly conflicted, I dipped into the Twitter stream and read this:

@gardnercampbell: Just found & bought new poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Harvard Bookstore makes my day.

Really? One of my favorite people is visiting Cambridge the same day? Shades of manufactured serendipity. And lo, Gardner and I were able to continue a dialogue we’ve been having for years, but rarely face to face.

So what do I think of Windows Phone 7? I love it and I fear it. Now admittedly, I would love an iPhone or an Android too. So if you know these devices you’ll need to look elsewhere for a comparative review.

Then there’s the fear. During the relatively few periods when I could have been connected to the crowded cloud but wasn’t, I’ve reflected on my own uncritical embrace of digital maximalism. So I do worry about carrying the crowd in my pocket. But I hope I’ll figure out how to strike the proper balance. One thing I’m pretty sure of: you won’t find me electing myself mayor of a coffee shop.

5 Comments

  1. What a nice post.

    I’ve struggled too with the issue — the moments of serendipity one experiences through connectivity are memorable, epic. What excessive connectivity can do to you is less visible, less memorable, but arguably corrosive.

    Due to the obsolescence of the Sony LRF format I recently ordered a Nook, and I kind winced about the wi-fi piece, the browser, etc. Books, for me, have been such a nice respite from connectivity, and the Sony eReader had been instrumental in providing that respite — I’m worried, a bit. We’ll see.

    In positive news, the Nook ePub format is supported by the Keene Public Library, which is intensely exciting.

  2. Beyond muting the ringer and turning vibrate off when with people you really want to focus on, I think its important to have some kind of daily antidote to the forces that pressure our minds to adapt to regular interruptions.

    I discovered this by accident 15 years ago. I was interviewing for a PowerBuilder consulting position on Wall Street. I’ll never forget when a few months into the job, the hiring manager told me that the deciding factor was that during our interview he was interrupted again and again by urgent calls. He liked that I stayed focused, wasn’t annoyed, and helped get the discussion back on track.

    Now – deep down I was getting annoyed… but, I had been practicing meditation for a few years and let the feelings just come and go. (See Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness meditation.) I don’t mean to claim that I was (or am) deeply skilled in meditation; only that it has helped me to be less reactive. I’ve noticed that when I stop for weeks or months, I become more prone to acting without thinking.

    Yogic thought suggests that anything we do (or think), we tend to do (or think) more. And by doing it more, we reinforce the habit even deeper, making it very difficult to change. That’s why I make an effort to meditate and practice yoga every day; it’s a way to train my mind towards deeper concentration, unwinding the effects of sitting too much and being interrupted too often. While these practices do not solve the challenges of digital maximalism, they can improve our awareness of what is going on in and around us, creating a greater space for the freedom to make different choices.

  3. Thanks Mike.

    It’s tempting to imagine that smarter filters can make this less of an all-or-none dilemma. But we are still a /long/ way from automating the intelligent assistance that science fiction taught us to expect.

  4. That’s why I make an effort to meditate and practice yoga every day; it’s a way to train my mind towards deeper concentration, unwinding the effects of sitting too much and being interrupted too often.

    That sounds great! In my triage of the number of things like that I ought to do each day, I’ve wound up combining meditation with running. But then, for a couple of years, I was running with other people’s voices in my head. The podcast revolution took me by surprise, it has been a real joy to listen to thoughtful discourse in a mode of deep attention and no interruption. On the other hand, about 4 months ago, I realized that I had all these other voices in my head and I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. So I quit listening for a while. Now I’m going back, trying to strike a balance. It’s all about the balance.

    Meanwhile, my wife and I have been doing occasional yoga at a friend’s yoga studio, so I have to admit that’s a whole different thing. I can see that doing it occasionally isn’t enough, though. Would like to make it a higher-priority and more regular thing. As Mike said, we’ll see :-)

    1. Well Jon,
      Yogi Ben, as you may recall, meditated regularly for decades, and look where it go him.. drinking rum. The meditation, once it is internalized by a regular practice over several years, becomes an automatic and easy thing to do when needed.
      I can’t say I feel sorry for you when you run or bike while listening to podcasts. You certainly can’t meditate and listen to podcasts, and those physical activities can very well be forms of meditation. The reluctance to have a smart phone? Well now you know.. they aren’t any worse than podcasts on mp3 player.

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