The Matrix

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 17, 2009 12:01 pm

Chris and I have spent a lot of time discussing Twitter over the past few days, both online and off.  Along with Physioprof and James, we have a pact to resist joining the dark side.  And the movement is growing

revolutions_teaser.jpgStill,  it’s been a big week for Twitter. In a twist of irony, the same day we posted on the phenom, Discover launched its official Twitter feed.  And right now, a top headline on CNN’s frontpage reports that Ashton Kutcher has reached 1 million Twitter followers in his battle with the station. In other words, more folks are following ‘That 70’s Show’s Michael Kelso than than the actual news…and that itself has become the news.  I’m not sure whether we can glean any large scale significant clues here about the evolution of American culture, but it strikes me odd nonetheless.

Chris noted this week’s scientific finding that rapid-fire media may confuse our moral compass and just yesterday, another story on CNN reported moms are at risk for internet addictionAddiction?  While I’m thankfully not (yet) among users who ‘don’t bathe and abuse drugs to help them stay “up” for more online time‘, I often get the feeling that Chris and I are on our laptops more than we should be.  Scaling out, it’s clear that many of us are spending a good deal of time interacting with others in privacy. While the world grows smaller by way of globalization and the worldwide web, we’re becoming increasingly accustomed to social interaction amid social isolation.

I haven’t decided how I feel about all of this, but the week’s proceedings have me seriously thinking about how people are inherently changing.  And what about the aforementioned risk? Are we really capable of becoming addicted to the web? As ever more of us become virtually wired much of the time, could we be approaching The Matrix? That question is mainly in jest of course, but just for the sake of discussion…

If it’s happening, would anyone notice before it’s too late?


Comments (20)

  1. We are all addicted to the web to various extents. Try doing what I do, not taking the computer home from work and cozying up on the couch with a good book instead. I have always compared it to being unplugged from the matrix. It’s nirvana for me.

  2. An even more appropriate analogy for the internet is The Machine Stops by EM Forster. It was written in 1909 but it’s disturbingly prescient. Though my internet addiction continues unabated, it did make me feel guilty. :)

  3. I think our way of thinking is changing. I also think it’s irreversible. The question is what this will do to our societies…if you look at what the printing press did, the possibilities are basically vast….

  4. Walker

    As ever more of us become virtually wired much of the time, could we be approaching The Matrix?

    You mean in the sense that we have satisfy ourselves with superficial answers to complex metaphysical questions?

  5. Erasmussimo

    I live in the mountains. My nearest neighbors are about a third of a mile away from me and separated by plenty of forest. I don’t go down into town very often. Most of my interactions with other people take place by telephone, video, or text. I spend most of my day working with the computer. Yes, it is strange, but this way I get to interact with people far more interesting than I would encounter out there in the real world. I think this is a good thing. Besides, when I’ve had too much of the computer, I head out into the woods and clear out snags, brush, deadwood, or engage in other serious physical labor. It gives me perspective.

  6. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I’m not convinced by the noise about Twitter and morality [DISCOVER blogged (and tweeted!) on this], but I do agree with overall trend you mention. People do understand, at least on some level, where our world is going, but each little slippery step we take forward is just so *convenient* to do.

    You send email instead of letters, download a pdf instead of go to the library, read the writings of 1000 people a day instead of just a few, etc. I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it’s hard to stop moving up the ladder of technology-mediated convenience. It’s like William F. Buckley wanting to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!”

  7. Heck, it you were on twitter, you would have seen a link to this two days ago.

  8. Thanks to Coturnix for linking to The Neurology of Twitter, a preemptive blog post that reports on the predicted results from such an fMRI study, before anyone can publish the actual findings… because of course the Immordino-Yang, Damasio et al. PNAS paper had nothing to do with Twitter.

    Part of the reason for this misinformation is the lengthy embargo policy at PNAS. The press can see the paper a week before the rest of us. However, I doubt that any of them read beyond the ridiculous USC press release… so the laziness of reporters, the sensationalism of their editors, and Carl Marziali at USC are also to blame. The USC press office has even engaged in revisionist reporting, removing “Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass” from the beginning of the PR and deleting all subsequent mentions of Twitter. In addition, the EurekAlert! PR that “rapid-fire media may confuse our moral compass” is now called the more sedate “Nobler instincts take time.”

    How did I first find out about the bogus press coverage? Why, on Twitter of course!

    @mocost New study finds that moral decisions take a few seconds, and the media spin it into another scare story about Twitter

  9. Marcos

    As Courtnix et al note, the press accounts of twitter damaging our minds is hogwash.

    But anyway, as I noted yesterday all your criticism of twitter apply to blogs, rss feeds, web sites, and the internet in general. Twitter is simply the medium; it’s the content that matters. Dismissing twitter makes as much sense to me as dismissing all blogs ,or all books.

    My suggestion with twitter is to pick one person’s feed that is someone you like or know and just visit it on the web a few times a day. See, you’re not using twitter; you’re just reading a web page. Who knows, you just might find a collection of interesting thoughts and links and information.

    Anyway, that all said, I agree that with all the information sharing going on … it reminds me a bit of the “Stream of Consciousness” episode of The Outer Limits:

  10. @The Neurocritic:

    because of course the Immordino-Yang, Damasio et al. PNAS paper had nothing to do with Twitter.

    Yes, a few of us even tried to point that out on this blog: 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).

  11. MadScientist

    I really don’t see the big deal here (or why anyone would even enter such a pact). I have absolutely no intention of using Twitter, so at this point in time I would say I doubt I will ever use it. However, I’m not joining any “I swear over my cold dead body that I will never use Twitter” clubs. To me it is absolutely irrelevant.

  12. When I think of how society may be affected by our use of remote interactions rather than face to face meetings, I remember Asimov’s Caves of Steel. That was carried to the extreme, of course with people living alone and even willing to commit suicide rather than be in the presence of another human.

  13. Are we really capable of becoming addicted to the web?

    From one addict to another. A resounding yes.

  14. Well, why would anyone want to go to twitter to learn “more” about this study, when anyone only have to use Google News to find reports on media and blogs… in far more than 140 signs.

  15. Meh. I’m already one of those “creepy internet people” with more friends on the ‘net than I have around me.

    Maybe I don’t see what the big anti-Twitter mess is because I’m an IRC geek. I love IRC, and use it as much as I’m on the computer. My best pals are on there. Twitter is like having a global IRC channel with a brevity limit (thank the dark gods) and a greater control over who you’re reading.

    It’s a slightly different feel, but it expands my monkeysphere some, and lets me get info that I normally wouldn’t catch by just sifting through the blogs, etc, that I read.

  16. Having read the Immordino-Yang/Damasio paper, I have to weigh in and say the Neurocritic is absolutely right on this. I’m no Twitter evangelist, mind you, but the media hype on this just didn’t represent the science at all.

    I’m not surprised, because the social media angle was much easier to sell to an audience (especially an audience primed to think Google is making us stupid) than a story about subtle differences in cortical processing of emotions. But I do think such overhyped misrepresentations of science damage the public credibility of scientists in general – even when the hype isn’t the scientists’ fault.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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