Measuring our lives

June 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Books, digital technology | Leave a comment
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In Seneca’s time, ‘Elite, literate Romans were discovering the great paradox of information: the more of it that’s available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way. So there was a tendency to graze, skim the surface, look for shortcuts.’ (William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry, p. 112)
This is just like today – except surely our situation is worse in this respect. Seneca tells his friend Lucilius, ‘Measure your life: it does not have room for so much.’ (Powers, p. 113) Just like today. There is too much to do, too much work, too much ‘stuff’, too many responsibilities, too many deadlines, too many new digital toys – and the learning curve never ends.
Someone said, ‘The theft of our time is the theft of life itself.’ She was talking about work hours but it could apply to many other aspects of our society, such as the time it necessarily takes to learn the ever-changing technologies for communicating – or for doing almost anything these days.
If I have to fiddle with a computer or device for ages – and it always takes ages – it feels like dead time. It’s not stimulating or relaxing or entertaining or challenging (there’s that awful word again) – it’s just unbelievably tedious. Whereas when I paint I feel happy and calm and free. When I write I feel stimulated and infused with a calm awareness as my mind makes connections and remembers relevant facts and sparks ideas. I’m drawing on a lifetime’s education and experience, I’m using every level of myself. I feel alive and happy.
But we can’t live without computers and digital technology now. And there are plenty of good things about them, specially concerning communication. Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry presents advice about how to deal with new technologies from philosophers and inventers etc throughout history in his intriguing book. He points out that instead of celebrity philosophers we have celebrity chefs. But they never tell us how delicious life itself could be if we followed a different recipe.
Marshall McLuhan said that our reality is shaped, even created, by our tools. Human freedom and happiness should come before technology. Our digital devices have a big influence on our lives of course, but we should control them, not the other way around. Powers quotes Thoreau and states, ‘Walden shows that, even in the midst of a frenetic world, one can create a zone where simplicity and inwardness reign – a sanctuary from the crowd. The need is far more pressing now.’ (p. 190)
Powers writes that the only way of cultivating a happy inner life is to spend time there, [in the depths of your mind] and that’s impossible when you’re constantly attending to the latest distraction.’ (p. 201)
So Powers and his family have a rule: no digital anything over the weekend. Every weekend. As a result they communicate better, are more creative, have more time for outdoor life, conversation, books and friends. They are healthier, physically and emotionally. That’s a tall order today – to not open up a computer or Facebook or text friends. But the author reckons both parts of life are invigorated by it – that they approach work and school refreshed and look forward to the digital world on Mondays, and in turn appreciate the refreshing peace from the digital world on their weekends.
Could I do it? Phew – let me think this over. I might compromise. Maybe I could just do this blog on Sunday nights.

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