Tech Trends: The Twitter Trap

Tech Trends: The Twitter Trap May 25, 2011

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, questions the impact of Twitter and other social media on our minds. Here are a few salient excerpts:

A twitter trap?

I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I edit a newspaper that has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto. I get that the Web reaches and engages a vast, global audience, that it invites participation and facilitates — up to a point — newsgathering. But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves. . . .

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity. . . .

So let me be clear that Twitter is a brilliant device — a megaphone for promotion, a seine for information, a helpful organizing tool for everything from dog-lover meet-ups to revolutions. It restores serendipity to the flow of information. Though I am not much of a Tweeter and pay little attention to my Facebook account, I love to see something I’ve written neatly bitly’d and shared around the Twittersphere, even when I know — now, for instance — that the verdict of the crowd will be hostile.

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

Keller’s concerns have received more extensive attention in books like The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Yet his call for consideration is worth hearing, I believe: “But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.”

Have you thought about how your use of digital technology influences your life? Your thinking? Your relationships? Have you thought about the costs, or just the benefits?


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