Saturday, August 14, 2010

Combating Digital Maximalism

I just finished William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry which is a great rumination on the costs we accrue as we become increasingly interconnected and what we can do to loosen it’s insidious grip on our lives. Powers (like Neil Postman in his third idea of technological change) thinks that an identifiable philosophy lies at the heart of technology and that in the digital era it's called "Digital Maximalism" and can be summarized by a maxim and two corollaries:

It’s good to be connected, and it’s bad to be disconnected.
First corollary: The more you connect, the better off you are.
Second corollary: The more you disconnect, the worse off you are. [p.35]

Like most people who value contemplation, Powers takes issue with this philosophy and devotes a good deal of the book examining how we can get off the grid and spend a little more time with our inner selves. He’s by no means the first to have written on this theme (think Carr’s well received The Shallows or my own small contributions in “iPhones Each Day Keep the Instructor O.k”), but I especially appreciate his attempt to look at a few famous men from Western history (including Socrates, Seneca, Gutenberg and Shakespeare) and examine what they’ve done to shirk the distractions of the crowd and get down to deeper and more focused thinking. If you need a fresh and interesting take on the canon, and you worry whether our intellectual capacities are diminishing as a result of recent inventions than this book is for you.

Addendum: Powers suggests that we need to build options into our current digital technologies that will allow us to adjust how much connectivity we want. Most of our devices attempt to realize the maxim and corollaries enumerated above. But when people choose the relatively less connected Kindle over the iPad they are often leveraging the kind of option Powers wants to see more of. People (like myself) who turned on Gmail lab’s “Email Addict” feature (which made Gmail unavailable for 15 minutes) were after the same thing too. It’s a shame that the feature was retired which (incidentally) is somewhat at odds with Google’s very own Eric Schmidt who as CEO once advised:

Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us. Nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he walks his first steps. (quoted from p.76 of Hamlet’s Blackberry).