Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hamlet's Blackberry

Hamlet’s Blackberry is a quirky title for a compelling book that causes readers to think of today’s technology in light of timeless principles such as personal distance, space, inwardness, and others. It is an elegant and eloquent treatise on tech tools and how we as humans can better navigate and negotiate their usage in daily life, both personally and professionally.

Written by former Washington Post technology writer William Powers, the book’s title is an allusion to the erasable writing tablet—the Blackberry of its time—used by Shakespeare’s character Hamlet. The underlying theme of the book is that we are more capable of coping with our digital devices than we give ourselves credit for but we must exercise self-restraint with them, including declaring “Internet Sabbaths,” as Powers and his wife do each weekend.

Alluding to the book’s subtitle, “A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” Powers writes: “Technology and philosophy are both tools for living, and the best tools endure and remain useful over long periods of time.” To that end, the author explores the lives of luminaries like Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Thoreau to uncover their respective philosophies for coping with the technology of their times.

Speaking of philosophy, Powers explains in his introduction that “We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time.” As readers of Hamlet’s Blackberry are reminded, more is not necessarily better, and minimalism is quickly becoming the method for keeping tech in check.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Growing Green

Another often-overlooked way to simplify life is to grow green in our daily living. For years my wife and I allowed the conventional wisdom of the conservative movement, of which we were proudly a part, to convince us that being environmentally responsible meant being a “tree-hugger” or some such nonsense.

Over time, however, we found ourselves gradually embracing a philosophy of less is more as it relates to our daily consumption practices, particularly at the grocer. For example, due to a friend’s simple blog posting, we opted out of the “paper versus plastic” debate by buying a few reusable fiber bags for our grocery purchases.

Next, my wife and I decided to radically reduce the amount of incoming mail we received by opting out of direct mail lists and canceling our receipt of several catalogs that we used to order from regularly, whether we needed the stuff or not. Not only did we help save forests in the process, we also eliminated one of the chief enticements to our consumptive lifestyle.

Our latest move toward a smaller carbon footprint—words I never thought I’d use to describe my life—involves filtering our tap water instead of purchasing countless quantities of bottled water, which may or may not be of better quality than unfiltered tap water. The tipping point for us was an ad we saw featuring a bottle of water on an exercise machine with the caption [paraphrased]: “An evening at the gym…an eternity in a landfill.”

So what do these relatively minor actions all have in common? For starters, they add up to make a profound difference and each one started with us making a conscious decision to change our personal habits on a practical level after diverse promptings. One or the other may not make a global difference on its own, but taken together such simple changes can do a world of good.