What’s Your Intention? Mindfulness, Technology, and Hamlet’s BlackBerry

Has your connectedness made you feel overwhelmed at times? I would answer yes. Spurred by this realization, along with a colleague’s recommendation, I read Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (Harper, 2010) by William Powers. It deftly describes both the benefits and perils of being connected in today’s world. This book spoke to me on several levels: as a reader, as a connected educator, as a father and husband, and as a learner. It is worth noting that the author takes a reasonable approach with the digital life. He likes being connected, but is mindful about his use of technology.


photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

I will try not to make this post too book-reporty. Instead, I will list some of my favorite quotes from the text, my takeaways, and how I have considered applying these concepts to my own life.

There’s a difference between access to information and the experience of it. Reading evolved away from the crowd for a reason; it wasn’t the best way to read. (p 135)

Takeaway: The author is referencing Gutenberg’s printing press and how it expanded literacy to a global level of access. Before this, reading was a social experience. If you were literate and could afford books, you read aloud so everyone could enjoy the text. Reading silently wasn’t a normal practice until much later.

Application: I have become more cognizant about the format I read on. Some books lend themselves well to print, while others read just as well in digital. However, I have reverted from reading books on my iPad to using my wife’s “old” Kindle when reading a digital text. I download the book(s) I want and then turn off the wireless. This practice prevents me from clicking on URLs in the text I am sometimes tempted to select. My reading experience feels deeper because I alone am expected to make meaning.

Digital screens are tools of selectivity, but using them is more reactive, a matter of fending off and filtering. Because a paper notebook isn’t connected to the grid, there’s no such defensiveness. The selectivity is autonomous and entirely self-directed. (p 152)

Takeaway: The notebook in question is Moleskine. The author uses them all the time to jot down notes while on the go. He parallels our notebooks to Shakespeare and his use of tables (erasable wax tablets used centuries ago to write ideas on for later reference). There is a sense of grounding when we put our thoughts down on paper. They seem to become more real and concrete.

Application: This totally affirmed my affinity for Moleskine notebooks! Probably not by chance, I really started using them around the time I became more connected in the fall of 2011. What I use often is the Moleskine Evernote Smart Notebook. I can scan my handwritten pages into a note, which is then searchable with a Premium account (and if Evernote can read my handwriting, rest assured it can read yours). Now I don’t have to be tethered to a screen when trying to capture my learning.

Take a walk without a digital gadget, and distance is yours…It’s a psychic leash, and the mind can feel it tugging. That’s the problem: We’ve gotten so used to the tugging, it’s hard to imagine life without it. (p 211)

Takeaway: Take a moment to observe any public area and you will find a large number of people checking their smart phones. McDonald’s, your school lobby, the park, it doesn’t matter. Whenever there seems to be a lull in activity, people naturally look to their smart phones to occupy their minds.

Application: I am as guilty of this as anyone. When I should have been engaging in conversation with my kids, I have caught myself checking my Twitter feed. That is why I have made a point to not bring digital devices everywhere I go. As well, I am attempting to take “tech sabbaticals” once a week. This break usually falls on a Sunday, which is the Sabbath anyway. I refrain from checking email, social media, or anything else technology-wise that would distract me from being present with my family and for myself.

Paper is arguably becoming more useful, since it offers exactly what we need and crave, a little disconnectedness. (p 216)

Takeway: The author repeatedly comes back to the importance of depth, the state of digging deeply into one’s mind and reflecting upon past learning experiences. When we don’t have gaps in our connectedness, we prevent ourselves from ever having more than superficial, surface-level understandings of complex issues. Depth is born out of reflection from our experiences, not just from the experiences themselves.

Application: For schools promoting paperless classrooms and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives, this information should give leaders pause. If a student is always connected to a device, when do they have time to remove themselves from the flow of information and digest everything they have encountered? We need to build in these points for reflection if we expect students to retain and apply the important concepts and skills of their school experience.

Click here to order this book. You can decide whether to read it in print or digitally. 🙂

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

5 thoughts on “What’s Your Intention? Mindfulness, Technology, and Hamlet’s BlackBerry”

    1. It’s a great book Curt. I think you would really enjoy it. The author takes a sensible approach to being connected. He backs it up with some interesting historical parallels. Bottom line: We’re going to eventually find balance – it’s just a matter of how soon.


  1. I am late to this. Making a comment anyway.

    I use the BlackBerry KEY2. It has BlackBerry Locker. I disabled every useless Android feature I do not need nor use. I put every single application into the BlackBerry Locker. I cannot use more then one application at a time because each time you minimize an application, it closes.

    I love this feature. I also cannot see any notifications until I unlock the BlackBerry Hub; when I feel like it. I also use airplane mode whenever I am sleeping to turn all radios off for that time period.

    All this works to allow me to be way more mindful and way less attached to the device. It’s great.


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