Phantoms and Hamlet's Blackberry

I was standing in line at Starbucks when I felt it. That familiar vibration that alerts me that a new e-mail has arrived on my iPhone. Without thinking, I reached into my front, left trouser pocket to retrieve it. Only problem was, there was no phone there -- I had left it on my desk back at the office. It was the first of several phantom phone sensations that I've experienced over the past few months. And it got me thinking about how much my digital devices have become a part of me. So much so that I still feel their presence, even when they are not there -- like the pain that people who've lost a limb report, even though the arm or leg is no longer there.

Are these sensations heralding the first psychosomatic signs of the Singularity, when man and machines become one? Have I become so connected, so continuously, that my devices have become mere extensions of my own body? Have I allowed the technology to get under my skin, as it were, much like the promise (or threat) of brain implants, which will be appearing in an occipital lobe near you, very soon?

I was considering these questions when I came across William Powers' new book, Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Powers is a former Washington Post staff writer who, together with his wife and son, left the busyness of DC for the more Thoreau-like tranquility of Cape Cod. While he is not a Luddite, nor even an Internet pessimist, Powers is acutely aware of the onslaught on the psyche the Internet and the new technologies have brought. What's novel about his approach is that he seeks answers and some solace in the experience of those in the past, including some great philosophers, writers and thinkers, who also had to deal with information overload in their respective times.

He uses Socrates and ancient Greece to illustrate the difficult transition from the oral tradition which Socrates championed to the new paradigm of writing, which Plato embraced with considerable success. While much was gained with the ability to capture and preserve thoughts on papyrus, Socrates mourned the loss of memory and the rhetorical skill which he so powerfully personified.

Then on to Rome, where Powers illustrates what the great Seneca had to contend with at the height of that civilization's rule. With Roman roads, came so much information, correspondence and other bureaucratic papyrus-work, that Seneca often felt overwhelmed. He used letter writing and authoring plays as a means to go within -- to find inner peace and depth to alleviate the constant urgent demands of his time and attention. Seneca learnt to become stoical in the face of his times and the flood of information which empire-building now demanded.

Guttenberg's well-known technology is up next, though not before Powers introduces us to an earlier device that the famous bookmaker mass produced. These were small, convex mirrors that were used by pilgrims to capture the thought-to-be miraculous "rays" of passing relics put on show once a year in the cathedral city of Aachen. They allowed the faithful to reap maximum inner rewards while being immersed in a crowd. Of course, the printing press took this to a whole new level.

Elizabethan England is the backdrop to the next "technology" that Powers describes. It was the hugely popular "tables" that were all the rage in Renaissance England. This hand-held device allowed the owner to record his thoughts and save images on a palm-sized writing instrument which could be wiped clean at day's end. In Hamlet, the hero must deal with his "distracted globe," wipe clean trivial thoughts from "the table of my memory" after the ghost of his father has told him the horrible truth of his untimely death. Shakespeare's hero demonstrates how he used the latest gizmo to deal with sensory overload and to stay focused on his "to do" list.

Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan are also employed in the book to illustrate how each dealt with and overcame the pressures of their days. Franklin had his "little Artifice," thirteen virtues and the behavioral guidelines to achieve each one that he attempted to follow all his life. Thoreau created a sanctuary, not in the wilderness, but on the edge of Concord, his home town, to experience inner depth, social distance and quality of life against a backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, telegraph wires and thundering steam trains. McLuhan, of course, brought us a new way of thinking about media messages and suggested we now lived in a global village.

Putting down Hamlet's Blackberry, I returned to my office and noticed something. I had not one, but three Web-enabled screens on my desk: my PC, iPad and iPhone, all of which would signal the arrival of a new e-mail, calendar alert or text message. My desk reverberated with my vibrating phone and the beeping noises of all three devices and my PC screen flashed up the title and summary of each incoming e-mail. No wonder I was beginning to feel phantoms.

So I took a page out of Thoreau's book and gave myself a little Walden time. I keep my devices switched on, but I turned off every alert, vibration and visual cue I could find. Now, when I finish a task, I consciously go and check my e-mail -- on my terms and in my own good time. Things are a lot more peaceful in my office and in my head. Now if I can only stop my leg from tingling.