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Hamlet’s BlackBerry

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First, however, he highlights the all-too-familiar pitfalls of the “Too-Much-Information Age.” He goes all the way back to Plato and Seneca to make his case that “whenever new ways of connecting have emerged, they’ve always presented the kinds of challenges we face today – busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control.” With the Internet, we’re still in the adjustment period.

Like Alain de Botton, Powers is a lively, personable writer who seeks applicable lessons from great thinkers of the past. He calls his gurus the “Seven Philosophers of Screens”: in addition to Plato and Seneca, they include Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan. All of them, he claims, share our experience with the tug of war between crowd and self, outward and inward, medium and message.

In Plato’s “Phaedrus,” a dialogue that takes place during a walk outside Athens, Powers finds an argument for the restorative powers of distance and conversation at a time when written language was threatening what had been an oral society. From Seneca, he gleans practical techniques grounded in Stoicism for tuning out chaos through the art of concentration and deep, narrowly focused thought.

Thoreau is a more obvious source of inspiration. When he retreated from Concord to Walden in 1845, two new inventions, the railroad and the telegraph, were transforming the world. Powers admires Thoreau’s willingness to escape, simplify, and disconnect in order to reestablish the paradigm of home as sanctuary.

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