Last week, the New York Times ran an article by Bill Keller about how technology saps our mental abilities when it replaces things we used to have to do for ourselves:
...the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation's math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?
One technology that got caught by the author's radar was Twitter.
As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted "#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss." It produced a few flashes of wit ("Give a little credit to our public schools!"); a couple of earnestly obvious points ("Depends who you follow"); ... and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah ("Um, wrong." "Nuh-uh!!"). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say ... chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others' opinions are stunted.
That got me thinking. And to prove that Twitter hasn't turned my brain to mush (yet?), I chose to respond outside of Twitter :-).
I, for one, have rarely used Twitter for conversation. It does happen occasionally. But more often, I use it to find interesting information that my friends tweet links to, to share links to interesting information, and to announce my own blog posts.
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with conversing via Twitter -- just that it occurred to me that different people use Twitter in very different ways.
Do you use Twitter's 140 characters to share $1.40 thoughts or to link to and find $14 thoughts? ...or to link to 14¢ brain candy? ...or to share 0.14¢ drivel?
Do you cram $3 thoughts into 140 characters by rmvng all the Xpndbl chrctrs and using SMS-style acronyms or by writing concisely? If the latter, the 140 character limit can actually be a great source of practical mental exercise.
Speaking of SMS, I have a confession to make -- I dread the day when my kids are old enough to have cell phones and start texting. I've seen the bills one of my nieces racked up...and her parents paid (that ain't gonna happen in this house!) And I've seen people who are so busy with their phones that they don't interact with the people they're with physically -- not just the people they're around every day, but at holiday parties with relatives they don't see very often.
I didn't grow up with text messaging, and haven't ever owned a phone that offered it, so I don't have firsthand understanding of why some people get addicted to it. (I don't feel as old as that last sentence makes me sound. I'm a programmer, not a Luddite! You've gotta believe me! :-)
How do I teach my kids to use text messaging as a tool for things it's good for (like emergency communications -- did you know that text messages can often get through when everyone's trying to call, even if voice calls can't?) and prevent it from becoming a substitute for the world around them?
But I'm drifting off topic a bit.
I guess what it comes back to is that if we use technology to enable laziness, we short change ourselves. If we use it to do our grunt work, and then reinvest the time and capacity that opens up to voluntarily take on new challenges and stretch ourselves in new directions, it becomes an evolutionary tool rather than causing an evolutionary step backwards.
Don't let Twitter turn you into a birdbrain.