A summary for my wife of a book I just read.
The primary thesis of the book is that we live in an era of abrupt technological change which is challenging us psychologically. One of the main features of the new paradigm is a high value placed on connectedness. We are encouraged to devote more and more of our time in contact with larger and larger numbers of people through our technical interfaces. As a consequence, we don’t spend enough time alone with our thoughts or with our closest friends and family members. It is in these quiet moments that we process these stimuli and transform them into creative acts. The irony is that the new technologies do save time, but we fill up the time saved with the acquisition of new stimuli or never get time to process them.
The other big idea is that our epoch is not unique and there are good lessons to be learned from historical episodes involving rapidly changing information exchange paradigms, particularly by looking at how certain individuals of the time met these challenges. The seven individuals chosen and the corresponding paradigm shifts are:
- Plato – adoption of writing and early urbanization (Athens)
- Seneca – large scale urbanization and complexity (Rome)
- Gutenberg – printing press and silent reading
- Shakespeare – mass adoption of print media
- Franklin – age of enlightenment and birth of a new country
- Thoreau – telegraph and trains
- McLuhan – mass media in modern society
A theme that emerges from the study of the challenges presented to these seven individuals is that there are strategies that exist to live a good and effective life in the midst of these major paradigm shifts. Plato and Seneca had to deal with new levels of complexity with the written word transforming their cultures. Plato reflects on the value of written material reducing the need to work from memory of a speech or a conversation. Seneca uses the written word (in the form of private letters) to go inward and develop more intimate contact amid the chaotic swirl of Rome and his official duties running the empire as regent for the young Nero.
Gutenberg drove the widespread availability of books which transformed reading from a public process to a private one. Shakespeare describes the use of an erasable notepad (i.e., “tables”) to capture the small but critical details that are encountered in everyday life (quotes, appointments, insights). Franklin’s challenge was more personal. How to succeed in a busy life while filled with an abundance of temptations that interfered with his need to be effective. The definition and development of private virtues.
Thoreau confronted a relatively chaotic world and found a way to create a peaceful, private space (Walden) on its periphery for inward reflection. McLuhan studied the explosion of technical processes for exchanging information which we are still in the midst of today. His insight was that the new technologies come to define essential aspects of our being (“the medium is the message”). He proclaimed the importance of fully understanding what the communication devices of the modern era are doing for us and to us and to become their masters rather than the reverse.
I liked Powers’ balanced approach to the subject; far from technophobic and yet understanding well the challenges of living in times of such transformative change. His own response was to create a “Walden in time” for himself and his family. Like Thoreau made Walden a protected space just nearby a busy city, Powers made the weekend his Walden by enforcing a ban on internet connectivity in his household from midnight Friday to midnight Sunday. It sounds like a tough challenge – one I don’t feel ready for or particularly in need of at this time. I did find several good ideas in the book that I can apply to my life immediately; like just having intentional disconnected periods – and appreciating them – and learning how to make technological devices serve me instead of negatively affecting my behavior. I’m also quite intrigued by Ben Franklin’s life story and intend to read more on it as well as Thoreau’s Walden and a unique bio of McLuhan I read about.