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

Do you find yourself checking Facebook as soon as you wake up in the morning? Do you answer e-mails on your Blackberry while surfing the Web? Even as you read this article, is your right index finger twitching on the mouse, just itching to click on something new?

If so, welcome to the 21st century. Without even realizing it, we've signed up for a life in which 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 based on an essay he penned in 2007.

Early in the book, Powers describes a scene that should strike many as familiar: He is standing at a crosswalk in the middle of Manhattan, alongside five or eight other people -- all of whom are staring intently at some digital device.

"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," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "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."

But Powers' book is not a Luddite manifesto. The writer may question the way we use our gadgets, but he certainly doesn't condemn it. ("With a few keystrokes, I can bring up an old manuscript from the British Museum. That is miraculous," he says.) He does, however, recognize the downside of constantly being flooded with new information -- or what he calls the "conundrum of connectedness."

"We don't have any gaps, any breaks in which to make sense of it; do something new, creative with it; enjoy it," he says.

Among the things that suffer from our overconnectedness, Powers says, are 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," Powers says. "It's sort of the opposite of connectedness."

His aim in Hamlet's Blackberry is to help teach people how to connect more wisely. To that end, Powers looked to the past, where he found several precedents to both the current information age and the anxiety that has come with it.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, was plagued by the connectedness that came along with living in the capital of a vast empire.

"There was noise and there was business," Powers says. "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."

Another major figure Powers examines actually developed his own strategies for coping with overstimulation. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the titular Danish prince is visited by the ghost of his murdered father, who informs Hamlet that his murderer is none other than Hamlet's uncle.

"Hamlet is so overwhelmed by this news, this new piece of information, that he's not sure what to do with it," Powers says.

So Hamlet reaches into his pocket and pulls out his "tables," an object Powers describes as a sort of proto-electronic planner. Powers says that in the Elizabethan age, tables were a new gadget designed to help people bring order to their lives.

"It was basically an erasable, plaster-like surface inside of a little booklet," he says. "You could write notes during the day and then wipe them away clean at night."

In other words, even denizens of the late 16th century had a method for dealing with information overload.

But how are we of the 21st century supposed to cope with that same problem? Powers has one suggestion that's both utterly simple and almost impossible to imagine following: just disconnect. His family, for example, takes an "Internet Sabbath" every weekend.

"We turn off the household modem, and we don't have smart phones, so therefore we can't get [in] our inboxes the whole weekend. We can't do Web surfing. We can still call, we can still text -- but we're not really texting addicts," he explains. "We really enter this other zone, and it's wonderful."

According to Powers, the positive effects of these technology breaks are felt long after the weekends are over.

"Even when we're connected, we can feel the benefits of having been disconnected a couple days ago. It really helps," he says. "It's just about that simple word, 'balance.' "

Not that he thinks unplugging your modem is necessarily easy.

"It's really hard to pull away. You have to know why you're doing it, and really believe," he says. "What I'm about here is trying to convince people that it's worth doing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.