July 8, 2010

The Socrates Dilemma: another thoughtful discourse about wise use of technology

Like lots of people who work in and around the business of books, publishing and information, I’m frequently asked about my predictions for the future of the printed word, specifically the book. In this all-connected-all-the-time world, apparently there are plenty of people (not just librarians) who worry that books may go the way of newspapers.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is the latest book to salve the worries of bibliophiles everywhere. The author is a Washington Post newspaper reporter whose family declares all weekends “digital sabbaths” –two-day breaks from smart phones, e-mail, and computer screens. Powers and his wife instituted this practice after realizing that the more connected they were with the world, the less present and connected they felt with each other, family, and friends.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry makes a case for balancing our use information technology without overwhelming our minds – a problem that has plagued mankind since the time of Socrates and Shakespeare, according to Powers. As it turns out, Socrates was the ancient equivalent of a Twitter addict who would overindulge in live orations that dragged on forever. His friends often dragged him away for long walks to encourage reflection. His pals evidently knew what every well-balanced person comes to understand—that downtime is actually very productive.

The modern version of Socrates’ dilemma is what Powers calls digital maximalism—the notion that being more connected is better. He predicts that our overstimulated, underfocused minds eventually crave downtime, reflection and the private pleasure of reading a book. This can only be good news for the future and the value of books.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry challenges myths without completely bashing the good things we get from today’s information technology. Here were a few myths I enjoyed hearing him bust:

Younger people are somehow more native lovers of information technology.
Powers says the people who most comment on his book are under the age of 35. They totally get the idea that no form of technology trumps human interaction. Many are willing to admit that total immersion in IT has cost their generation something in the way of interpersonal skills. And they are anxious to reclaim those skills. I’ve got a few young friends in the communications profession (and elsewhere) who will vouch for that.

Information technology results in greater productivity.
However useful Google is, knowing things because you Googled them does not always generate retained knowledge. When people are constantly inundated with information, they find it more difficult to do work that requires sustained attention and make thoughtful, analytical choices. There’s a cost to employers when attention is excessively fragmented. People are prone to mistakenly identify time in front of a screen as work. Often it is not.

What a great addition to the ever expanding discourse about the intersection between human connections and information technology! This is a great self-help guide for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the role of technology in their daily life.

P.S. Don't forget to enter the drawing for this month's free book, Straight Down the Middle, by Josh Karp. Visit www.leadingreads.com to learn about the book and enter.