Friday, July 31, 2009

No, I don't "Tweet"

Here's another in a series of posts that will almost certainly offend some of my readers. I apologize up front, but I stand by my premise...

Yes, I am something of a Luddite, but that doesn't mean I'm completely nuts. Lately I am starting to think certain uses of technology are simply a bad idea. Consider:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Power Point in the school
All of these suffer from a single major issue: they encourage tiny thinking.

Yes, I know that Twitter has become a major news source, and yes that's a good thing. It may even be a democratizing influence, but all kinds of technologies with a few good uses suffer from huge drawbacks. I'm not going to make a list by way of example. If you can't come up with a few genies that did both harm and good when let out of the bottle you're not trying.

Put plainly, Twitter actively discourages complex thought. Far too many Americans can't string even a few words together. If the current generation grows up communicating in ultra compressed text snippets I really don't want to think about where we'll be. I am certain I won't like it though.

Facebook looked interesting to me after I started using it, and there are a lot of people I simply don't see that often. Our hectic lifestyles mean I'd never know what they are up to without Facebook or something like it. Lately, though, I've encountered something I don't like: people are mirroring their incomprehensible twitter feeds into their Facebook status updates.

Maybe I'd understand them if I did nothing but follow Twitter and/or their lives in depth, but I have a wife, a job, dogs to take care of, and things to to in the real world. Trying to understand these cryptic messages typed in on phone keyboards from the middle of nowhere isn't going down well with me. In truth I could probably ignore those - possibly by disabling the feeds from the guilty - but there's a related trend, and it's just as disturbing: short, pointless, repeated Facebook status messages.

How often do I need to know that someone is tired, or is going to bed? The minutia of daily life is just that: minutia. Tell me about the important things - or even the semi important things. Did you get a new job? A new house? Get engaged or divorced? Celebrating something important or had an epiphany of some sort? Great! Share away. Tell me about your kids, the things that made you whoop for joy or scream in despair. I'm fine with all that, and I will whoop or cry with you. I'll even do my best to support you when you're down. Just please don't use the vast resources of the Internet to tell me you're home from work.

Years ago I heard a story on the radio about a pathological diarist. He documented every little thing in his life: what he had for lunch, at what time, where he sat while he was eating it, what he was going to next (after updating his diary), and so on. As I recall he was in his 40s or 50s and his diary was many, many books, all full of hand written, pointless drivel about nothing. I pitied the guy, and I suspect that vast diary will be thrown in the trash when he dies. No one is going to care, and all that effort is wasted.

I feel somewhat similar about people I know telling me (and all their other Facebook friends) they had green beans with dinner. Part of what causes these kinds of status updates - besides most of us (myself included!) having nothing important, relevant, or useful to say the vast majority of the time - is that the silly status box is so small. Facebook doesn't limit you to a tiny comment like Twitter, but the interface encourages it, and recent design changes at Facebook indicate they're moving farther in that direction. Yet again a powerful tool is helping make all of us - or at least its users - less capable of complex thought.

I must admit I've posted pointless status updates myself many times, but I am trying to stop it now. Actively working at it. Feel free to tell me this blog post qualifies as the same kind of inane babble, but at least I am trying to address a complex topic - something I care about - and am doing so in whole paragraphs, with real thought behind them. (Or the closest analog to real thought I can achieve.)

The last item on my list - Power Point use in schools - is just as bad, and just as dangerous to the future. An entire generation is growing up thinking that the best possible communication path is animated bullet points that slide into place on a screen with sound effects. "The Panama Canal is in South America. Click! Ships go through it. Click! The US helped build it. Click! And that's my presentation. Can I get my 'A' now? No? But I wrote the right number of bullet points and I had pictures and everything!"

How many avid readers do you know? How many of them are kids?

What about writing? Does anyone you know write more than a hundred characters with regularity? Probably not.

Nothing encourages thoughtful, intelligent communication anymore, and the technologies listed here are radically changing the way we communicate whether we like it or not. I am not optimistic about the direction of that change.