September 7, 2021
Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
Author: William Powers
Genre: nonfiction; technology, sociology, philosophy
In one sentence: if you’ve ever felt technology (especially the internet) is getting the better of you or those around you, this book provides a unique view on the problem and how we might get ourselves out of it.
Homo distractus, that’s how William Powers, the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry sums up the current state of affairs for us humans. Our devices and round the clock connectedness are making our lives shallow. He argues we fail to do our best and important work because of this, and build fewer meaningful relationships with those around us.
For some (or perhaps most?), his book might read like an exaggerated manifesto, the ramblings of a luddite (a person who fears (new) technology). But Power’s message is much more balanced than that. He doesn’t decry new technology outright. Instead, he calls for a rethinking of its usage, for a new philosophy as to how to manage our relationship with our devices and connectedness.
In doing so, he looks for solutions in a surprising place: the past. Through the lives and works of ancient philosophers, statesmen and entrepreneurs such as Socrates, Seneca, Gutenberg and Franklin, the author shows us new technologies have always disrupted our ways of living, and raised questions on how to cope with their effects.
First new technology shapes the exterior; how can I use this? Then we turn to the behavioral; how can it change how I do things? Once those phases have been resolved, it is time to look at “the inner human dimension of technology: How is this device affecting me and my experience?” With the current technological revolution, we haven’t spent much time in this last phase yet. Powers believes the solution lies within technology: our devices can help us to disconnect from the digital realm at the right moments, creating space to think, and build better, more satisfying lives.
“If our technologies are driving us nuts, it’s our fault for not paying attention to what they’re doing to us. Why should we allow tools that are supposed to be making us happy to make us miserable? We should take control of the new technologies ‘instead of being pushed around by them.’ ”
While the book is full of great quotes and stories, this passage best sums up Powers’ premise of what technology is doing to us, and that it’s up to us to take control and do something about it.
Goes well with Carl Newport’s Deep Work; while Hamlet’s Blackberry mainly provides a philosophical backdrop for how we’re losing focus, Deep Work provides practical guidelines and methods for bringing focus back into your work (read my summary of Deep Work here).
⭐️ Rating: 4/5
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