I’ve been thinking a lot lately about technology – specifically social networking. I’ve been a software developer for the last nine years and I’ve watched with amazement the dramatic changes in how the web is both produced and consumed during that time. I quickly learned the importance of staying current (believe me, it’s a full time job). I am a classic “geek” – I truly enjoy what I do. However, I’ve noticed a growing trend in my life: The longer I work in software, the more I attempt to insulate myself from certain effects of technology in general.
The “All Style and No Substance” Effect
Out of all the blessings and curses of modern technology, this one worries me the most. I think that so-called “Social Networking” is potentially causing much more harm than good. Before you write me off as some “backwards naysayer” who just doesn’t get it – remember – I work in this industry! Through some business connections a few months ago, I had some inside information on what was going wrong with Twitter as the user base grew exponentially. Nearly every aspect of what I do is geared towards providing our customers the information they need via the web. Before I lay out my concerns, understand that I think there are some great aspects to sites like Facebook, Vox, Twitter, etc. My wife and I have met some wonderful people – many of whom have become friends (albeit, mostly long distance). However, none of that shakes my conviction that the great casualties of our age are substantive conversation, accountability and robust intellect.
One of the aspects of Twitter touted by friend and foe alike is “you’ve got to work hard to say a lot in 140 characters”. Right – and those same people have their blogs auto-Tweet when they post new entries, since, after all, some things (try ‘most things of substance’) simply can’t be said in 140 characters. Facebook status updates are not much different (and many, like me, have Facebook and Twitter linked). Whether we “tweet”, leave a response on a blog or reply to forum threads, there’s a certain anonymity – even when we use our real name – that subconsciously buffers us from the consequences of harsh words or banal comments. The more recent joke comes to mind “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1”. Just watching the scathing political comments on Twitter is proof enough. Even worse, some of those I follow have made sweeping generalizations about people whose heritage, faith or accent I share – all in a nicely packaged 140-characters-or-less insult. It’s easy, I guess. If you don’t like the heat, you don’t have to leave the kitchen, you just un-follow someone, or boot them from your friends, un-link them or otherwise block them. In a world where we’re not talking directly to an in-the-flesh person, and where the usual means of consequences and accountability aren’t present, it’s easy to begin to treat people as usernames to be demeaned & discarded. I was amazed to hear a comment one responder left saying “These conservatives scare me. Can’t we just get rid of these Fascists?” While that statement might be under 140 characters, I’d question who the Fascist is really.
We are in danger of allowing all our conversational exchanges to boil down to the lowest common denominator. Real ideas take time to develop and discuss. While I’ve seen great uses of Twitter and Facebook along these lines, the vast majority of our technological options lend themselves to short, superficial and often rude ‘conversation’. Seriously! If you’ve made it this far in this blog entry alone, you are in the minority. There’s so much downward pressure on the quality of relationship and exchange: “no one reads long blog entries”, “keep your tweets pithy and intriguing”, “always leave comments on the blogs you read”, “how many followers do you have?”, etc. Should we be so worried about how hip our status messages sound? Can we really discuss anything of weight in less than 140 characters? Is the content we’re trying to direct our Twitter followers to just an expanded cotton-candy version of the “nothingness” so often “tweeted” about, or is it constructive, personal, helpful and perhaps educational? Too often it’s all style and no substance – a sad & empty flash in the pan of human experience.
Dumbing-Down Intellect & Losing Time
I love that Facebook has re-connected me with childhood friends. But at some point or another I have to come to the realization that I can’t respond to everyone who super-pokes me, I can’t read everyone’s tweets, I can’t take the 25th meme I’ve been tagged on – you name it. It’s fun, sure. But my close friends are the ones that I talk to – in person, on the phone and yes, even IM. Two-hundred years ago Americans actually met and talked – in taverns, churches, schools, etc. They argued about principles and ideas. They watched each other’s backs. They actually knew their neighbor’s names. They could certainly be a raucous bunch, but there was a level of civility and integrity which I believe we have lost. Today, instead, we allow the great potential of our minds and hearts to be wasted on an overload of TV, web and ever-present-marketing. We have forgotten the joy of working to be entertained – like reading up on a subject that actually requires thought, learning a game or pursuing a hobby. We – and I’m right there in the middle – have preferred, instead, to have even our entertainment spoon-fed to us, no thought or assembly required. We think that a night of “vegging” is just what the doctor ordered, but at what cost and is that truly rest?
While the web has made it easy for anyone to publish “information”, the quality of that information is questionable, and the respect for the veracity of the author hinges on the whim of the reader, not fact-checking, peer-review or other means of accountability. Many schools have banned (rightfully so) the use of Wikipedia as a source on essays, but Googling abounds. I love Google, but is anyone contemplating the cumulative effect it will have on an entire generation currently developing the habit of not retaining information over the long term, much less knowing how to look it up if the internet connection is down? Prior to MS Word, students were taught to outline their points before writing their paper. This wasn’t just to help the writing process, but the thought process. Today we are encouraged to just simply write and we can edit it later. The initial thought process to refine your ideas happens less and less. Intellect is like any other thing in life – without use, it breaks down.
My encouragement to you (and if you made it this far, thanks!) is to use the technological tools we have at our disposal to make it easier to do substantive things in life, rather than be sucked in by the appealing “brightness” of the brief flash in the pan.. Re-learn what it was to live life prior to the iPhone or CrackBerry temptation of being “always on, always available”. Take a walk and think, reflect and enjoy your own company. Then do the same with friends and family. Go and introduce yourself to your neighbors. Don’t feel the ridiculous pressure to keep up with every Facebook status change, Tweet, Linked-In update that crosses your computer screen. Determine for yourself and your family that when the world finally gives up serious individual thought altogether for the sake of entertainment , that someone will be left in the world who is actually qualified to run it.