A crisis of brains indeed

On May 30, 2011, in Thoughts, by cornelius

I want to take a moment to comment on NYT editor Bill Keller’s op ed The Twitter Trap that I read this morning over coffee.

Keller’s piece is one of those self-proclaimed “thoughtful critiques” of digital media that journalists write to prove how relevant they still are. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve read hundreds of these “I’m not a luddite, but..”-articles about the pros and cons of the Net and its “impact on our culture” by now. Have a look and see if you recognize the script.

The line of argumentation is sadly predictable: First we are assured of how technologically progressive and up to date the author is and then Twitter, Facebook et al are associated with information overload, dropping attention spans, changes to our brains, souls, culture, and overall well-being. Sprinkled in are references and analogies that make the changes afforded by digital technology seem awe-inspiring and unique, oddly supporting the author’s argument about their world-changing potential. Comparing Mark Zuckerberg to Johannes Gutenberg (as done by Keller), may look catchy at first glance, but feels wrong for so many reasons I don’t know where to begin. For one thing Gutenberg’s invention didn’t make him quite as rich as Goldman Sachs made Zuckerberg and was conceived, you know, to spread the Word of God, rather then monopolizing social networking sites. People like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee (to name just two examples) were a lot more like Gutenberg in the sense that they enabled a medial shift they didn’t anticipate. Had Gutenberg been like Zuckerberg, we’d all be using the exact same printing press, and Johannes would be able to make sure we’re not using it to print anything nasty.

Forget Twitter and Facebook, this is the real threat to our brains.

Keller uses a fairly canonical set of arguments for his critique. He starts by claiming that people were more adept in memorizing large amounts of information in the pre-Gutenberg era. Alright, agreed, but wouldn’t this have to be followed up with a long list of other things that were also different back then? Mass-media fantasies aside, I think we have one hell of a hard time relating to the medieval mindset and oral culture (which is nothing medieval) is the smallest reason why.

Have our culture and brains really been under siege since the invention of cuniform or alternately, movable type? That’s one hell of a downward spiral, Bill. One oddly decontextualized neuroscience soundbite and several personal anecdotes later, Keller closes with nothing less than a plea for young, confused souls:

My own anxiety is less about the cerebrum than about the soul, and is best summed up not by a neuroscientist but by a novelist. In Meg Wolitzer’s charming new tale, “The Uncoupling,” there is a wistful passage about the high-school cohort my daughter is about to join. Wolitzer describes them this way: “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

No longing, Bill? Like, seriously?

(I’ll skip the part where nobody, you know, knowledgable is consulted on the topic, but an argument is instead stitched together from a (seemingly unrelated) neuroscience experiment and a novel. Just know that I’ll be watching for a similar choice of sources in a NYT op ed when the next energy crisis or financial crisis looms.)

If you ask me there’s plenty of longing alright, but it’s not the longing, craving or whatever of these poor young people for “context”, but rather the longing of a newspaper editor for coherence, authority and control. It’s a crisis of brain and soul for journalists and other power elites (scholars, teachers, politicians, parents) who find themselves challenged by what the kids are doing. The example Keller gives about asking a complex question on Twitter and getting a short, reductive answer is telling in several ways. It’s not just that the expectations are wrong, it’s that his way of using Twitter is characterized as the way of using Twitter. Only that a prominent journalist’s use of microblogging bears little similarity to what the kids for whom Keller fears are doing. Claiming that they live in a world with “no context” (ah, the idiocy that expression!) is equally demeaning and implausible. It just that it’s a context that both journalists and parents have difficulty understanding.

What cheeses me off about all of this is that we could be having a real debate about what the implications of digital technology are, instead of playing out this tired, old are-you-for-or-against-the-Internet trope which by now feels extremely dated. Keller’s criticism looks oddly similar to that of Frank Schirrmacher, another journalist, and editor of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Schirrmacher described the Internet as “a threat to our brains” in a book he published in 2009. Funny just how many “credible digital Cassandras” (Keller) decide to spread their warnings by the means of well-publicized books. They speak at conferences, peddle their “criticism” on TV shows and write thoughtful newspaper op eds reminding us of a simpler time when information was scarce and (comparably) easy to control and monetize. They remind us, the silly, star-eyed public, that not everything related to the Internet is teh awesome, but that some things there are smutty, bad and dangerous and that we must watch out before our children succumb to technology’s evil influences, which is best achieved by reading their thoughtful, balanced-yet-critical books. Except that these are mostly tired enumerations of speculations, soundbites from neurologists related as closely to Facebook’s effect on society as to the effect on brain-eating zombies on our mental health, and uninformed, extremely self-referential deliberations how the Internet is scary to elites based on how they are using it. They exaggerate the impact of digital technology and its uniqueness because if you’re in the horse and buggy industry, nothing is scarier than the automobile. And finally, they assume that everyone uses Twitter, Facebook and other services in the same way, which, as it turns out, is not true.

There is of course, a lot that can go wrong in the future. Data is increasingly treated as capital, and those who are producing it aren’t the ones owning the inferences mined from it about attitudes, behaviors and consumer choices. Despite the clamor that through the Interent information is available to EVERYONE, it’s neither true that everyone has access nor that we’re even all using the same Internet. Censorship, privacy, I could go on. But why bother with these complicated issues if you, as the executive editor of a leading newspaper, can instead lament about how you’re terribly conflicted about all this change that’s going on? Why acknowledge that the situation is complex and has many facets when you can instead troll a bit and get a lot of “how dare yous” and “finally someone says its” in response? Funny how even a piece about the dangers of Twitter has to be, you know, debatable on Twitter. 

Come to think of it, this would make a stellar title for a book:

OMG! ZOMBIES! How the hysteria of our social elites about the Internet is keeping us from engaging in a serious discussion.

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