Wednesday, August 12, 2015


When I attended the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society last month Thoreau, working through the medium of my friend, his Iranian translator Alireza Taghdarreh, introduced me to Bill Powers. Bill had been corresponding with Ali via the Internet.
Bill is also a medium for bringing Thoreau's voice into the present. Herewith, whether you have read or whether you like or dislike Thoreau, I want to recommend Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers (Harper Perennial). It hardly needs my review and recommendation since names you know already praise it: Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan, Laura Lippman, Laurie Winer in the New York Times, Stephan Balkam at Huffington Post, Walter Isaacson author of Einstein: His life and Universe, and many more. Bill begins by noting all the great gifts of the digital age. (One of them was his connection to Ali's work in Iran.) However, he writes that the great burden and danger of the digital age is "We're all busier. Much, much busier. It's a lot of work managing all of this connectedness." He adds, "We're losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it's astounding that we're allowing this to happen." This makes me think of the explosion of shallow memes that so many people often post on Face Book and other sites, a hurried and simple minded way to express their feelings, to substitute those feelings for facts. Far worse the memes often turn real people with whom they disagree into shallow caricatures. Memes are a way to substitute someone else's voice and thinking for their own. Many of these intellectual Potemkin Villages are posted by people with graduate degrees from distinguished universities where they once learned how to think for themselves. When we try to understand this and answer why we let it happen, Bill Powers writes, "From there it's just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? and Who am I?" How to lead a full, deep life in the Digital Age is the subject of the book. "It's a struggle that's taking place at the center of our lives. It's a struggle for the center of our lives, for control of how we htink and feel. When you're scrambling all the time, that's what your inner life becomes: scrambled. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Do we really want a world in which everyone is staring at screens all the time, keeping one another busy? Is there a better way?" With Thoreau as his north star, Bill Powers proposes answers for the present. In pursuit of ways to put his answers into practice, Bill left journalism to join a team the MIT Media Lab team that is developing new (and deeper) social media at the Laboratory for Social Machines. In the promo material for Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, novelist Laura Lippman at says, "it changed my life." People still say that about Walden. (Photo by Alireza Taghdarreh of Bill Powers at Walden Pond) See also the web site: