To refresh your memory, here’s my “sum the sum” from part 11 of my summary of Hamlet’s Blackberry:
- Central question: are humans speciating into “naties”—people who have grown up mostly in natural environments—and “virties”—people who have grown up mostly in virtual, screen-delivered environments?
- Central question: are digital natives (people who are thirty or younger) essentially forming the new species Powers calls Homo distractus?
- Central question: are we really looking at a new species, or is Homo distractus more about un- or underdeveloped Executive Function Skills such as empathy, perspective taking, mental time travel, mental modeling, delaying gratification, planning, etc.
- Research suggests that kids who aspire to join professional ranks tend to give up their use of non-standard language as they enter college.
- Giving up non-standard language as a way toward professional ranks could be framed as the My Fair Lady phenomenon.
- What the Internet has done for us is to give us a “localized universality.”
- Whereas before we derived a dopamine buzz as a part of face-to-face interactions, we now seek out that buzz in the hyperlink-to-hyperlink interactions that characterize localized universality. If that buzz is not forthcoming, we can turn to all manner of behavioral drugs to take up the slack.
- In the same way that a McDonalds on every street corner makes us feel safe, we find safety in the localized universality of the Internet. Both must be transcended if we wish to find and enjoy a gourmet meal.
Lets get started with part 12 of my multi-part summary of William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.
On page 164, Powers begins talking about the life of Ben Franklin. Today, we would label Franklin as having ADHD or attention defect and hyperactivity disorder. Lets listen in:
[Franklin] realized that his life, as he’d been leading it so far, was terribly disorganized and out of balance. He wasn’t good at managing money and relationships, and his career wasn’t headed where he wanted it to go. And he knew the problem: he was racing around in too many directions. … It was time to focus his scattered self, and he came up with a ritual to do just that. He realized that the essential problem was that he had not learned to control his impulses. His crowded outward life paraded many temptations before him [like the Internet does for us today], and he gave in to them more than was healthy—his sex drive, for example, often got him in trouble.
Notice all of the EF (executive function) issues touched on above:
- disorganized and out-of-balance life
- bad at managing money
- bad at managing relationships
- career path not clear
- easily distractible; going in multiple directions
- unable to focus attention
- dysregulated emotional life (especially in the realm of sexuality)
On page 165, Powers tells us that Franklin came up with a plan to treat his ADHD. Powers calls this plan “philosophical self-denial.” Here’s how Powers defines philosophical self-denial: “Resisting certain urges because you know you’ll gain more in the big picture by doing so.” We could frame philosophical self-denial as part of an EF-informed treatment program. Delaying gratification, imagining the future, imagining the big picture, and regulating emotional states are all Executive Function Skills. Franklin decided to use ritual to develop and improve Executive Function Skills. “[Franklin] looked inside himself and figured out what were the good habits that, if acquired, would cancel out the bad ones and make his life a lot nicer,” writes Powers. Franklin arrived at thirteen virtues and how to use ritual to achieve them. (Note: Powers makes the point that, being a man of the times, Franklin turned to the views of the Enlightenment, as opposed to religion, for guidance as he constructed his virtues.) Here’s just a sampling (see Powers’ book at page 166 for the full list):
- Frugality—Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.
- Sincerity—Use no hurtful deceit.
- Tranquility—Be not disturbed at trifles.
From just these three virtues we can see that Franklin wished that all people could develop or improve Executive Function Skills: 1) be reflective in commerce, 2) be empathetic in relationships, and 3) be critical in thinking. At the risk of being a broken record, the Internet carries with it the potential to impede our efforts to develop or improve EF Skills. And Powers gets this when he asks, “Positive rituals based on inner belief—could they help workers with digital dependency issues?” Powers suggests that such rituals could help. In fact several major companies have put such rituals into place. Again, a sampling:
- Quiet time—a weekly four-hour period in which the workers’ incoming email was shut down (they could compose and read e-mail, but not receive it).
- No e-mail day—on Fridays, whenever possible, the employees agreed to use verbal communication rather than e-mail.
- Lengthen time period for e-mail response—rather than feeling they must respond immediately to internal e-mails, workers could take as long as twenty-four hours to reply.
Side Bar: Last night Leno interviewed director Quentin Tarantino. For his latest movie Django Unchained, Tarantino imposed a strict no cell or smartphone policy. He gave two reasons: 1) technically, a ringing cell or smartphone could wreck a shot costing time and money (and probably someone’s job), and 2) adaptively, Tarantino feels that by banning cell and smartphones on the set, the cast and crew will engage in the types of focused, face-to-face interactions that are required to create a cohesive work environment. He told Leno that when people are constantly checking and updating their Facebook and Twitter pages, they’re really not present. Tarantino mentioned that many of the cast and crew thanked him after the filming for the cell and smartphone ban because it gave them an opportunity to get away from their screens.
Chapter ten starts on page 175 in Powers’ book. Chapter ten is entitled The Walden Zone—Thoreau on Making the Home a Refuge. As Powers reveals, when Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods back in the 1850s, he was grappling with two emerging technologies “that were transforming the world, the railroad and the telegraph” (quoting Powers). Both the railroad and the telegraph (with its promise of instant communication over long distances) allowed us to transcend space and time and body.
When new technologies hit the scene, Powers suggests that this is a good time to ask one overarching question: “What kind of home makes us happy?” In essence, home (and what to let into home) could be used as a lens through which to view the possible affects of a new technology. And I would argue that home and body share a lot in common. Our home often is an extension of our body. However, Powers observes that “as a practical matter, not many people [like Thoreau] have the freedom to escape society—jobs, family, and other obligations—and hole up in the woods” as part of a reflective process designed to look at technology using the lenses of home and body. But I would argue that we should engage in this reflective process in some way. And maybe philanthropists could help here, to ask the question: “What kind of home will make us happy?”
Thoreau’s solution? According to Powers, Thoreau decided to put up “invisible philosophical walls [echoing Franklin] that said: No news, busyness or stimulation, including the human kind, enters [my home] without my permission.” Thoreau did this as a way of making sure that the “crowd was never overwhelming” and that there would be “space and time to be alone, and with others—a healthy human mix” (quoting Powers). Personally, I think this is key: a healthy human mix. The analog–digital divide is about mixing the human with the non-human. These types of mixes have to be made consciously and reflectively. In other words, these types of mixes require robust Executive Function Skills. Thoreau equated “instant communication” and “a short-attention-span approach to life” (quoting Powers). Powers writes of Thoreau’s take on the people that surround him thus: “They were all living from one emergency to the next … consumed by their work, always checking the latest news.” Those words seem appropriate even today. Here’s how Powers describes Thoreau’s mission (on page 189), which could be looked at as our mission too, in the following way: “[T]o see if, by building a home at a slight distance from society—disconnected, yet still connected in many ways—and living there thoughtfully” Thoreau could regain “the depth and joy that was being leached out of everyday life.” In my opinion, this is the mission and challenge of finding safe and secure attachment in our lives. Powers quotes Thoreau scholar Bradley P. Dean when he gives us this “take home” statement: “By simplifying our outward lives, we are freer and better able to expand and enrich our inward [e.g., return to home base] lives.” Maybe we could frame a Walden Zone as a Safe and Secure Attachment Zone. In contrast, a Crowd Zone would be any zone “specifically designated for screen life” (quoting Powers).
I’ll end here. Here’s my sum the sum for part 12:
- Ben Franklin realized he suffered from what we would call today ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder).
- Franklin used rituals centered on acquiring certain virtues to improve his Executive Function Skills
- Whereas before we depended on religion for EF-enhancing ritual, Franklin’s rituals came out of the Enlightenment.
- Today, corporations are putting rituals in place, such as Quiet Time and No Email Day, as a way of combating digital dependency.
- When Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods back in the 1850s, he was grappling with two emerging technologies: the railroad and the telegraph.
- Both the railroad and the telegraph (with its promise of instant communication over long distances) allowed us to transcend space and time and body.
- When new technologies hit the scene, we should ask ourselves one overarching question: “What kind of home makes us happy?”
- Home and body share much in common, and both our home and our body should be safe and secure.
- The analog–digital divide is about mixing the human with the non-human. These types of mixes have to be made consciously and reflectively using Executive Function Skills.
- Here’s my paraphrase of Thoreau’s mission: Build a home at a slight distance from society—disconnected, yet still connected in many ways—live there thoughtfully, and regain the depth and joy being leached out of everyday life.
- Building a home at a distance but still connected is the central challenge of most attachment relationships.
- Thoreau scholar Bradley P. Dean gives us this “take home” statement: “By simplifying our outward lives, we are freer and better able to expand and enrich our inward [e.g., return to home base] lives.”
Stay tuned for part 13. I’ll try to get it out as soon as I possibly can. It will probably be after the holidays. In the mean time, consider reading Powers’ book Hamlet’s Blackberry. If you have read Hamlet’s Blackberry, feel free to leave your comments concerning the information that Powers presents. Happy Holidays one and all!