Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, recently let his 13-year-old daughter join Facebook – my goodness, how had he stopped her before then? Within a few hours she had over 170 friends, “and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth,” he admits.
This launches him on a meditation of our times. The column appeared last week, but in my travels I hadn’t gotten a chance to post a few words about it – nor have I had time to read all the comments, many of which are nuanced and excellent. It’s worth a look if you missed it.
Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. put this under the heading “More Complaining,” but I’m not so sure that’s the whole story. I’ve made the same lament, and it’s not simply a curmudgeon criticizing the kids of today – I’ve noticed my own inability to concentrate without an every-five-minute squirt of dopamine from Twitter or Facebook … and yet, and yet, how else would I have met Arthur Sebastian Rosman, had not someone suggested our introduction on Facebook? (Actually, he had translated one of the essays in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, but he was just a name at the bottom of the page, back then.) I keep up with family, friends, and colleagues on Facebook, just as I rely on various news aggregators for news, and blogs for off-the-beaten track news. Moreover, I’ve downloaded Henry IV, Part 2 onto my new Droid.
Yet I find it harder and harder to memorize a short poem. Heavens, I find it harder and harder to read a short poem. I find it harder and harder to get into that slow, reflective space where I can think long thoughts. Keller writes:
As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite Middlemarch. But [Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein] reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.
My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?
Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.
Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.
The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?
The irony, the irony … I found the column because of an online news aggregator, and I read it on an Apple screen. Now I am blogging about it.
OK, Frank. Call me grumpy.
(I’ll be in a literal cloud in 12 hours, back to the U.S.A., after spending a lot of zlotys and a lot of time getting 20 pounds of books from my travels into the Polish mail today.)
Postscript on June 3: By now everyone knows that Bill Keller has stepped down as executive editor. Apparently, NYT staffers had to intervene in his hate-hate relationship with Arianna Huffington and the new social media. Could that be part of the reason why?