To refresh your memory, here’s my “sum the sum” from part 13 of my summary of Hamlet’s Blackberry:
- Marshall McLuhan is probably best known for coining the phrase “The medium is the message.”
- The transfer of a message not only includes the information itself but also information concerning the medium used.
- The medium sends implied information. As an example, sending a real analog greeting card sends the implied message that the recipient was worth the effort of a rather involved EF process involving planning, thoughtfulness, cost (time and money), appropriateness, etc.
- McLuhan asserts that tools (especially communication tools) are really extensions of our bodies. Such extensions also include extensions of the mind.
- A new technology “produces a new kind of human being” (quoting Powers). In part 11, I suggested that we are speciating into naties (people who live principally in the real world) and virties (people who live principally in virtual worlds).
- Using McLuhan’s work as a backdrop, Powers states: “If our technologies are driving us nuts, it’s our fault for not paying attention to what they’re doing to us.”
- Powers gives us this “showstopper” statement: “Attention deficit issues, Internet addiction, and other tech-related maladies are all about being stuck in [going out] gear.” Simply, there’s no returning home, to self, to body. It’s a perpetual state of discorporation or mind separate from body.
- Technology is a wonderful thing when it helps with the expression of self as part of an EF process; it’s a terrible thing when it dampens or deadens the EF process and, in turn, one’s self (see my January 10th, 2013, post for more on this theme).
- Here’s a great mission statement for both foundation and non-profit alike: “Encouraging critical and constructive engagement with today’s technology.”
Lets get started with part 14 of my multi-part summary of William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. I will make every effort to make this the final installment. So, my apologies if I proceed at breakneck speed.
The final two chapters in Powers’ book (starting at page 209) fall under the general heading Practical Philosophies for Every Day. Again, I’ll be covering these practical philosophies and suggestions rather quickly.
Using Plato as a backdrop, we hear Powers tell us (on page 211) that “physical distance is the oldest method of crowd control.” However, Powers reveals that, today, “truly disconnected places are increasingly rare.” I would suggest that this is one reason many people go out into nature, to be alone, to disconnect, to get some distance, to get some perspective, to reflect (more on this below). Maybe engaging in some type of religious process also serves the same purpose. For me personally, cruising Puget Sound on a slow-moving trawler with a couple of friends was a great form of getting distance and crowd control. Some choose to go on a vision quest of some kind, which brings us to the next philosophy.
Using the Stoic philosopher Senneca as a backdrop, Powers talks about the importance of Inner Space (at page 213). According to Powers, Senneca would find Inner Space by “focusing on one idea or person and tuning out the rest of the world.” Not to be a broken record but to focus on one idea or person and tune out the rest of the world requires Executive Function (EF) Skills. Being able to appropriately focus attention is one of the EF Skills. Powers offers up these practical suggestions for accessing Inner Space (and, by extension, improving EF):
- Have a face-to-face conversation with one person, “a focused, undistracted chat, without screens” (quoting Powers).
- Write and send a handwritten letter to someone. (See part 13 for why this involves several EF Skills.)
- Do something that involves working with your hands, “splitting wood, knitting, cooking, or tinkering with a car engine or bicycle” (quoting Powers).
- Rather than running a Google search, ask a friend to recommend a book or movie or tell you what is going on in the world.
On page 215, Powers gives us this “bottom line”: “Gutenberg made one of the great tools of inwardness, [printed] books, available to more people.” ‘Nuff said.
Using Shakespeare as a background, Powers reminds us that old tools can often ease overload. At home I use a 14-year-old Mac for my email. Why? The browser software (Internet Explorer 5.0) is so old that it can’t handle today’s modern web sites. As a result, I just read and respond to email and never fall prey to the temptation to go off and surf the web. It’s a huge timesaver and keeps me focused. Here are Powers’ suggestions:
- Read a paper book
- Keep a paper journal
- Play a vinyl record (which, by the way, are making a bit of a comeback)
- Play a board game
On page 217, Powers mentions that Ben Franklin was all about positive rituals. Franklin’s positive rituals are covered in more detail in part 12. Using Franklin as a backdrop, Powers offers up these two suggestions:
- Spend more time with your spouse or partner. Study after study show that when on their death bed, people never say that they wished they had spent more time at the office or workplace. Almost without exception, people say that they regret not spending more time with close loved ones. I wonder if when Millennials arrive at their death bed, they say something like, “I wish I had spent more time surfing the web and updating my Facebook page.” Again, as I have said before (using Bowlby as a backdrop), loss or contemplating loss tends to put us in touch with what is real and important.
- Spend more time helping your son or daughter, or niece or nephew, or grandson or granddaughter, maybe with a hobby like studying the constellations.
Using Thoreau as a backdrop, Powers describes what he calls Walden Zones thus: Places where “the main event is nature itself.” Powers continues, “The ultimate Walden Zone is a tree house.” Sadly, Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, talks about the end of the tree house. Louv talks about how increasingly community and homeowner associations are writing and enforcing (through legal action) regulations designed to prevent the construction of tree houses or even play forts. Simply, Powers’ Walden Zones are under attack. Powers mentions these other Walden Zones:
- The quiet car (e.g., a no screen or cell phone car) on a train. Recently a quiet car was added to our light rail system here in New Mexico called the Rail Runner.
- No screen or cell phone restaurants.
- Disconnected environments within schools.
- Offline coffee shops.
- No screen health clubs.
Walden Zones that I personally enjoy are out on the water on a boat and snow skiing down a mountain. Using McLuhan’s work as a background (page 219), Powers continues the above list thus:
- Host a “disconnect party”—a party where you have to leave all screen devices at the door.
- Make technology “more collaborative and humane.”
On page 225, Powers gives us this “bottom line”: “[A] family isn’t a spectator sport. It’s all about participation, engagement, connection [e.g., attachment] of the most intimate kind. At our screens, we’re all facing forward [and not each other].”
On page 229, things get interesting. Powers mentions the work of Donald Winnicott. Well, Winnicott and Bowlby often communicated and both advocated for attachment theory. (Recall that both Bowlby and Winnicott, and many others, signed a petition against the evacuation policies of WWII in the UK.) Powers writes, “[Winnicott] said a baby learns to be alone not through true isolation [which is highly traumatic] but by being ‘alone’ in the presence of its mother.” In other words, the more the child knows that his or her mind is being kept in mind by his or her mother, the more the child can enter the world of Inner Psychological Space and experience this space as being separate from the world of Outer Physical Space. As Powers puts it, “Without the existence and knowledge of other people, aloneness would have no meaning.”
It would take us too far afield but minds knowing minds (also known as Theory of Mind or ToM) is part and parcel of Executive Functioning. Powers gets all of this when he writes (on page 230), “Sensing this [mind in mind process with mother], the child begins to grasp its own separateness from her and to understand that it can be alone and still feel protected and safe.” Powers continues, “[It’s] only when the child experiences being alone in this way, with its mother somewhere nearby, that it can grasp the meaning of solitude and embrace its selfhood.” Broken record alert: This is the essence of an early safe and secure attachment relationship and how such relationships pour the foundation upon which EF Skills are built. Sadly, Mary Eberstadt describes how we are increasingly encountering a Home-alone America (the title to her 2004 book), an America where kids are truly alone with no adult minds to mind them (both physically and psychologically). As Home-alone America increases, EF development should decrease, and I think we can see this type of inverse relationship reflected in the following social maladies (ones that Eberstadt describes in her book): inappropriate sexual activity, teen pregnancy, overeating, drug and substance abuse, youth violence, and juvenile delinquency (a social problem that Bowlby looked at in detail).
Quoting Winnicott (on page 230), Powers tells us that if kids do not experience the dance of attachment with a primary attachment figure (typically mother), “a false life built on reactions to external stimuli” results. This agrees with the work of EF researchers such as Elkhonon Goldberg and Russell Barkley when they tell us that when the frontal upper parts of the brain remain underdeveloped (brain centers needed for EF), the person becomes trapped in the middle brain or the land of physical objects. In essence, the person is condemn to a life experiencing objects (physical experiences) outside of meaning or context (psychical experiences). In such situations, a “natural” reaction is to attack the object because the object demands meaning from us but meaning is not forthcoming. As Powers puts it (on page 230), “Our screens [are] infantilizing our life together.” That’s a great vitalistic frame. From an EF theory perspective, our screens are locking us in the object-dominated middle brain largely cutoff from the upper brain and EF. From an Bowlbian attachment theory frame (which shares much with an EF frame), screens offer up a good enough (with a tip of the hat to Winnicott) solution to the question asked by insecure attachment: How do I interact with people while at the same time not risking the pain and loss that naturally comes with real face-to-face intimacy? For more on this theme, see Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
I’ll end here. Here’s my sum the sum for part 14:
- From Plato we learn “physical distance is the oldest method of crowd control.”
- Senneca suggests that we can find Inner Space by “focusing on one idea or person and tuning out the rest of the world.”
- “Gutenberg made one of the great tools of inwardness, [printed] books, available to more people.”
- Using Shakespeare as a background, Powers reminds us that old tools can often ease overload.
- Ben Franklin was all about positive rituals.
- Walden Zones—Places where “the main event is nature itself.”
- Using Donald Winnicott as a background, Powers states: “[It’s] only when the child experiences being alone in this way, with its mother somewhere nearby, that it can grasp the meaning of solitude and embrace its selfhood.”
- Quoting Winnicott, Powers tells us that if kids do not experience the dance of attachment with a primary attachment figure (typically mother), “a false life built on reactions to external stimuli” results.
- This agrees with the work of EF researchers such as Elkhonon Goldberg and Russell Barkley when they tell us that when the frontal upper parts of the brain remain underdeveloped (brain centers needed for EF), the person becomes trapped in the middle brain or the land of physical objects.
- Here’s Powers’ “bottom line”: “Our screens [are] infantilizing our life together.”
Here’s my grand sum of Hamlet’s Blackberry:
- Technological advance has taken place across time for millennia:
- Clay Tablets
- Written language
- Printed language
- Atomic bombs
- The Internet
- These advances pose great challenges for the generations experiencing them.
- We are in the midst of a great technological challenge—moving to a largely digitally-defined and constructed world.
- As figures such as Plato, Senneca, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, McLuhan, and Winnicott show us, we must take great pains to form new relationships with new technologies in such a way that we can extend ourselves (going out) while at the same time not lose ourselves (going in).
- Powers (and others such as Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle) cautions that the Internet or digital generation (e.g., people age 30 and less) is currently stuck in “going out” mode. Another way to frame so-called “social media” is to view it as “going out media.” Sadly, as authors such as Mary Eberstadt and Kay Hymowitz point out in their work, there are very few adults or adult institutions around to help the digital or “going out” generation find their way home, to find their “going in media.” As a result, we as a society use such things as behavioral drugs and behavioral therapy as substitutes for true “going in media.”
- Learning how to go out while still maintaining confidence in one’s ability to return home is what safe and secure attachment relationships are all about.
- Safe and secure attachment relationships form the foundation upon which EF is built.
- EF allows us to balance and bridge the worlds of experiencing objects (physical experiences) with experiences of meaning or context (psychical experiences).
- Without EF’s ability to bridge and balance object with meaning, we become trapped in the middle brain or the land of physical objects. In such a trapped state our “natural” reaction is to attack the object because the object demands meaning from us but meaning is not forthcoming. I would suggest that this trapped state drives the psychological process known as objectification. I would further suggest that a lot of the acting out violence that now befalls our society falls into this category.
I hope you have enjoyed this multipart summary of William Powers book Hamlet’s Blackberry. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them here in the comment box, or use the Contact Us button above.