I’m split on the Bill Keller #TwitterMakesYouStupid brouhaha.
On the one hand, I agree with the notion that “faux” camraderie and “illusory” connectedness abound in social media. Interaction in 140 character bursts is by definition ephemeral and lacks depth. The mere fact that I’m writing a blog post in an attempt at a thoughtful response proves his point.
But tell us something we don’t know.
Asserting that social media is replacing “real rapport” is where his case falls apart. And are we actually “unlearning” anything? Are we becoming, as Keller suggests, soulless to the point where we have “…information, but no context…butter, no bread…craving, but no longing?” (Meg Wolitzer’s words, not his.)
I’m not so sure that social media’s effect on us is the zero sum scenario he’s painting. I think people know the difference between real rapport and exchanging tweets with people they barely know. You could just as easily have your face buried in The New York Times all day and not have any meaningful interaction with actual human beings. In fact, if we’re counting people as a requisite part of that mix, tell me the last time a newspaper talked to you.
I also haven’t noticed the people around me getting dumber because of social media. ADD? Maybe. Literally less capable of understanding, empathizing or positing a thought? I don’t have data to back this up but I’d say, not really. Sure, lots of people get lost in social media but I think there’s a function in the brain underlying that. Lack of self control isn’t anything new. But spend a few hours playing Minesweeper and then surf Twitter and see which provokes more thought.
As for losing our souls, well, that just strikes me as pessimistic. If we lacked information would we be magically bestowed with greater context instead? Does craving the immediacy and interaction of social media mean we don’t long for better things? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never turned down the chance to hang out with friends so I could catch up on their Facebook posts. Again, these aren’t either-or scenarios.
Keller’s right that calculators diminish some math skills. I can see how GPS might cause the ‘ol internal compass to wither a bit. Typing undoubtedly kills penmanship. These are all examples of technology doing things for us that we (or some of us) couldn’t do well naturally. And you know what?
The upside on that trade is considerable. Arrows made us better hunters so we could get more protein and then our brains grew. Airplanes let us experience places we otherwise couldn’t. We didn’t get to the moon by hoping really hard.
I’m not equating social media to Apollo 11, by the way. Point is that this whole being-connected-to-the-rest-of-the-wired-planet thing might just be big. It might not all be pretty but I’m far more optimistic about where it’s taking us…
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