Is Twitter Ruining the World?

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George Packer is getting beat up for dissing Twitter, and now he says he’s getting beat up for his response to the beatdown:

Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest — including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head….The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution. In fact, I’d think asking such questions would be an important part of the job of a media critic, or a lead Bits blogger.

Instead, the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions.

I confess that I just don’t get the vituperation on either side. The main response to Packer’s original blog post came from New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton, and it was just….a response. Nothing to really get upset about. Ditto for Marc Ambinder’s response, which Packer also links to. I don’t doubt that some of the responses Packer got were triumpalist and intolerant, but that’s just the nature of arguments on the internet. Hell, I get comments and emails by the hundreds telling me I’m a douchebag just because I support an excise tax on high-cost healthcare plans.

Beyond that, I have a hard time understanding why people get so worked up about other people’s esthetic and lifestyle choices. I watch some crap TV and read some crap books sometimes. Other people prefer opera or stamp collecting. So what?

Likewise, I find Twitter useful because I’m a blogger. My job is to stay plugged into the news cycle throughout the day, and a constant stream of real-time tweets from a select group of people helps with that. For me, it’s a lot less distracting than keeping the television going in the background, which is how a lot of people do this. But if I were, say, a medievalist plugging away on the definitive history of Roger Bacon and the birth of modern empiricism — well, Twitter probably wouldn’t be very useful. A distraction, in fact. Again, so what?1

Packer’s response, I gather, is that he thinks blogs and Twitter and the new information economy in general aren’t just esthetic choices. They’re changing the way we live in profound ways, and we ought to question whether those changes are a good thing. That’s hard to argue with, but considering the long, unedifying history of cranky elites complaining that new technology is turning our brains to mush and sending the world to hell in a handbasket, surely the burden of proof has shifted? I’m pretty open to Packer’s side of things, actually, but I wouldn’t give up printed books (16th century), newspapers (17th century), magazines (18th century), the telephone (19th century), or radio, TV, movies, or the internet (20th century) even though they all had their critics at the time too. The critics even made some good points sometimes, but I still wouldn’t give up any of this stuff. A few years from now, I might feel the same way about Twitter (21st century).

As a personal choice, read and view what you want. But if you’re going to add to the “death of culture” oeuvre, you really need to have a serious argument to make. And if you do, I promise to read it. As long as someone brings it to my attention via email, Google alert, blog trackback, or Twitter first.

1For the record, this is pretty similar to my usual response about whether blogs are good or bad:

It’s also why the endless debate over whether blogs are better or worse than the MSM is pointless. In the same way that newspapers excel at broad coverage of breaking news, TV excels at images, magazines excel at long analytic pieces, and talk radio excels at ranting screeds, blogs also excel at certain things. Trying to compare them to “journalism” is a mug’s game, like trying to figure out if a beanbag is really a chair. Who cares? Beanbags are great for certain forms of sitting down and lousy at others.

Same for Twitter. It’s good for quick, snarky comments and real-time links to interesting stuff. If that’s not what you want, then don’t use it.


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