The Benefits and Costs of a Technology: Sheril’s Very Serious Point About Twitter

By Chris Mooney | April 14, 2009 1:43 pm

Just hours ago, my coblogger did an awesome and spirited post about why she ain’t gonna tweet. Good for Sheril—and she asserts that it’s just a personal decision, which is totally fine. I have made the same personal decision, at least until further notice.

But Sheril also pointed out some “problems” with the technology in her original post—or rather, problems with what it may cause us to become. She linked a hilarious video underscoring a serious point, namely, that a technology like Twitter might, for some people, put their minds on speed…encouraging them to write faster and faster, and think less and less–becoming (drum roll) a distraction.

Inevitably, there were many responses to Sheril’s post saying, well, it’s just a new technology—not good or evil, just tech, so use it or don’t, and let others do as they please. E.g.:

Sean Carroll said: “I don’t see why anyone should complain about a technology that nobody is forcing them to use. If other people like it, what’s the big deal?”

And Thingsbreak said: “It’s what you make of it, like all new tech. You’d think someone who gave a talk entitled “I am new media (And so can you!)” would be a little less quick to tell Twitter to get off her lawn.”

Off her lawn? I can assure you, Sheril is no fogey.

And hold on a minute: It’s certainly an individual choice, but that’s not all it is. If everyone starts using a technology that changes his or her behavior, then society also changes. This change may be good, and it may be bad. But don’t tell me a cascade of individual choices doesn’t have bigger consequences.

I’m no Luddite, and neither is Sheril. I don’t think that the verdict on Twitter is yet in. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m the only one out there lately who sense that just maybe, not every aspect of how the Internet affects the media–or our thinking–is an improvement. In fact, there’s actually science on this: See “Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass,” EurekaAlert’s breakdown of a recent study from USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

I can attest to one thing–I personally sense that my attention span today is not what it once was before blogs, Twitter, constant Google chats, my Iphone, etc. Does that mean I have stopped doing these things? Have I gone and pulled a Thoreau? No. But I’m pretty sure technologies have changed me significantly over the past decade. And with the benefits, there have perhaps also come some costs…and this is the deep point of Sheril’s post.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Media and Science

Comments (17)

  1. I have made the same personal decision, at least until further notice.

    Dude, you are such a fucking hedger! NEVER!!!!

  2. Jon Winsor

    Well said, as always.

  3. Two hundred years ago, would you have been on the Tissot bandwagon?

    “I have known many others, who by study alone were first rendered frantic, or crazy, or at length became idiots.”

    “The case of the Chevalier de Pernay is very extraordinary. After four months of the closest study imaginable, and without previous disorder, his beard fell first, then his eyelashes, then his eye-brows, then the hair of his head, and finally all the hairs of his body.”

    “[Beware] the pernicious custom of some who, deaf to the calls of nature, defer going to stool, and suppress their urine a long time, to avoid interrupting their studies; not reflecting that many dreadful disorders spring from this force.”

  4. After listening to the CEO of Twitter on local TV station Sunday, I have a few more misgivings. To begin with, it is still running on VC fumes. They are not yet sure (or ready to say) how they will capitalize it yet. However, it was pretty clear that they will figure that out by watching what you really do do, so be careful.

    More to the point, there is a study now that indicates that twitter could make you immoral.

    The rapid speed at which Twitter and Facebook are updated can stunt the brain’s ability to create a “moral compass” — stunting emotional growth and the development of feelings like empathy, according to the University of California study.

    “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang told CNN.

  5. I have stopped taking my computer home from work about two years ago; it’s like being unplugged from the Matrix. I have not had a more peaceful, book-filled wonderful time at home before that. No tweeting, blogging, chirping, podding or plodding.

  6. We need a “I Won’t Twitter” button! Somebody make one, please.

  7. Heh. Well, I have a twitterfeed (ProsperoLinden). I update it way more often than my blog nowadays because, you know, updating a blog require thought and effort….

    I see the downsides of it, of course. Just as I see the downsides of PowerPoint (*), and all the people who’ve complained about how PowerPoint has warped our ability to communicate in meetings. But computer presentations remain a powerful tool, and they’ve made my life a whole lot easier when it comes to giving public talks.

    (*) I hate calling it PowerPoint, because PowerPoint is Kleenex to the tissue of computer presentations. In fact, I *never* use PowerPoint myself, I use Impress.

  8. Off her lawn? I can assure you, Sheril is no fogey.

    On the internets, fogeydom is as much an attitude as an age. It seemed an appropriate comment on the tone of her post- a bit in jest as were some of her comments.

    just maybe, not every aspect of how the Internet affects the media–or our thinking–is an improvement. In fact, there’s actually science on this: See “Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass,” EurekaAlert’s breakdown of a recent study from USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

    It’s plausible that if you reduce your interactions with others solely to Twitter/Twitter-like media you might find it more difficult to assess mental as opposed to physical distress in others, but is anyone even considering that to be a likely scenario?

    This reminds me a bit of the omnipresent warnings about popular entertainment consumption throughout history and the Is Google Making Us Stupid? nontroversy.

    If you abuse anything, it can have negative consequences. Twitter can also be a helpful and rewarding application depending on what you hope to get out of it and how you use it. You guys don’t seem to be interested, and that’s of course your right.

    As an aside, I have to say that much of the press coverage of the Immordino-Yang et al. paper seems to be incredibly credulous about the social media angle (which doesn’t even sound like it was addressed by the study).

  9. Gerrit

    I agree with the previous comment. Of course there are downsides, but name a technology that doesn’t

  10. David Bruggeman

    I’ve managed to find one reasonable use of Twitter (the name is a bit on the nose, but YMMV) for those not marketing a product or service – political organizing. It apparently <a href=" a part in the recent protests over possible election fraud in Moldova. However, other technologies can perform the same function, so Twitter could go away and the impact would be negligible.

    Besides, isn’t the same basic app part of most social networking sites? The value added here is virtually zero.

  11. mk

    I agree that it is all how you personally deal with it. However, with PDAs, laptops, cell phones, iPods, hand-held games and the like… will future studies reveal what I think I’m seeing anecdotally? That there’s an entire generation of socially retarded humans being unleashed on the world?

    When you go out in public there is an unspoken pact that we be social to lesser and greater degrees with strangers we encounter. At the grocery store, the restaurant, libraries, galleries, parks, sitting on your front stoop, what have you.

    I’m 45. I have a sense of change–not for the better–in this regard. I sincerely recall a time a decade or two ago when dealing with the public was less cold, less annoying. Even less dangerous. (How many times have you nearly crashed you car or been nearly run over by some other car because the driver was on a cell phone.) Those incidents are happening more and more. As a result, I do not talk on the cell in the car anymore. Yes, I swear, I pull over or ignore it. Multi-tasking doesn’t work.

    How many times have we been distracted by an incoming text during a family dinner? Drinks with friends? How many people can see in their minds eye the image of a friend looking under the table with that familiar blue glow shining back at him, trying to remain interested or appear interested in the general conversation… but isn’t really.

    We’ve all heard about the congress critters Twittering during the State of the Union. Seriously, is there any better example of social retardedness? I think we are becoming an increasingly stupid and rude society. As I mentioned above this is just my impression. I’d love to see more and better studies to prove or disprove this in the future. But not too far in the future! ;^}

    Yes, the technology is cool, useful. It can be used obsessively and stupidly or wisely. But the glut of more and more technological marvels that make it easier to close oneself off from general public interactions seems simply to be an overall negative. I guess that’s why I find Sheril’s and (apparently) Chris’ gestures appealing. It’s one small way of maybe stemming the tide of rudeness that appears to be washing over us. Not sure. But I’m hopeful.


  12. About the political use of twitter: the same thing has been said about blogs, and before that about web sites (remember the anti-mondialists ridings in Seattle in 1999?) and before that about e-mails, and before that, about newsgroups (somebody here remember newsgroups?).


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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