It's Not the Technology, Stupid! Response to NYT "Twitter Trap"

For HASTAC readers too young to understand the reference in my title, here's a bit of history: Long, long ago, way back in the past millennium even, Bill Clinton ran a successful presidential campaign against the supposedly unbeatable incumbent, George H. W. Bush, who was ignoring the recession (Clinton insisted) in order to focus on the end of the Cold War or the Persian Gulf War.   Whenever Clinton would veer into those debate areas, his campaign director James Carville would get him back on course with his trump card by reiterating:  "It's the economy, Stupid!"  

I wasn't going to respond at all to New York Times Executive Editor's plaintive, if hyperbolic, critique of all social media, "The Twitter Trap," but I'm hearing Carville-like yelling in my ear and realize I have to. Far, far too many powerful, brilliant, important people who should know a lot better are blaming technology for all kinds of things, and I better come clean and start entering the debate at that level. So, okay: "IT'S NOT THE TECHNOLOGY, STUPID!"  

It is just so hard to believe how many reputable intellectuals, writers, scientists, social scientists, and even educators are willing to indulge in a specious logic that they would never allow on another topic. They like to say that the Internet makes us shallow, stupid, distracted, lonely, or, in the case of this piece by the executive editor of the New York Times, that it somehow compromises us morally and spiritually: "My own anxiety," Keller writes, "is less about the cerebrum than about the soul."  I can only imagine an executive of his stature snickering with derision remembering how so-called "primitive people" said exactly the same thing about photography.  

Here are two facts:  (1) we now know from the new science of attention and the most recent findings in neuroscience that our brain is not, as was previously thought, an inheritance that comes with all of its components fixed and certain; the brain is a learning organism and that means it is constantly changed by its environment, but what it experiences, and by its interactions.  But (2) except in B-horror movies ("The Brain that Wouldn't Die" or "The Brain from Planet Arous" and so forth), the brain doesn't power itself and it doesn't power us. The brain R us. That is, what we experience our brain experiences.  If we give it a steady diet of junk food or alcohol or Ritalin, it changes. If we give it a steady stream of "Jersey Shore," that's what it learns. If we give it a steady diet of item-response multiple choice testing (the ridiculous form of testing which, we know, does nothing except prepare students to do well on that particular form of testing), it learns how to think like those tests.  If we inspire ourselves to curiosity, expose ourselves to challenges and then succeed and reinforce our ability to take challenges, our brain learns how to extrapolate from challenges.  And if we spend all day on line doing idiotic things, then, well, that is what we learn how to do well---spending all day on line doing idiotic things.  We are what we do.  Our brain is what it does.

But that's not about technology, it's about humanity.  Between the human brain and the computer screen, comes us, our will, our desires, our habits, our training, our work, our incentives, our motivations, our culture, our society, our institutions, all of the things that make us human.   It's NOT the Technology, Stupid!  It is about what we--you and I--do with the technology.  It always has been, it always will be.

This is not to say technology doesn't matter.  It does. We are fifteen years into the biggest communications revolution since the invention of steam-powered presses and machine-made ink and paper.  That mechanization of printing technologies suddenly made books and newspapers affordable to the masses for the first time in human history. That happened starting in the late 18th century and continued through to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth, with more and more mechanization that allowed for ever-more rapid printing methods.  From the beginning, the availability of cheaply printed  books and newspapers had a lot of people very worried--including Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Both worried that a new U.S. ideal of representative democracy would turn to anarchy if the "rabble" had all that unfettered popular culture  without a preacher at the ready to tell them how to interpret the text and keep them on track.  Being doers, not whiners, Jefferson and Adams both, in different ways, set about thinking through what institutions needed to change if, in fact, a new technology had put books into middle- and working class people's hands for the first time.  They thought about the concept of universal public schooling, for example, since you needed not only to educate people to read but to educate them in how to read wisely and sanely.  

We are fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet.  We have all made tremendous adjustments to these new forms of technology and social media.  I don't know about you but I do not need a new "study" to tell me my life has been changed by email, texting, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, Wikipedia, eBay, Amazon.com, my iPad, my Blackberry, and on and on and on.  It's NOT the Technology, Stupid!  I hear James Carville shouting.  It's about all of the ways life is changing and how technology facilitates, reshapes, redistributes the everyday patterns, facts, and habits of life. And it is about us figuring out the best ways to live given these rapid and continuing changes.

We all think we know what "work" is and we all think we know what "school" is but we really only know about the ways that leisure, home, learning, and living were reorganized by the Industrial Revolution for the last couple hundred years (a blink in the timeline of human history). Like Jefferson and Adams figuring out what had to change for a new democratic populace that suddenly had access to all that print, our contemporary leaders like New York Times executive editor Bill Keller need to take their role as cultural arbiters a lot more seriously and think about what needs to come next for our society.  It's NOT the technology.  We need to reconceive new possiblities for living, learning, and working together well.  It is about finding the best ways to change our institutions to support our new ways of living, learning, and working.  We need new institutions to support our digital ways of living, working, and learning just as the industrial era needed its institutions to support its ways. 

Here's an example:  The industrial age worked hard to separate "work" from "home."  Everything about the common or public schools started in the mid-nineteenth century reinforced that division:  from the school bell ringing for each child at the same time of day, to each child entering school at age 6 whether they were ready or not, about sitting in tidy rows, and, then, later, in the early twentieth-century, all the new ways of measuring success:  IQ tests, multiple choice tests.  Around the same time came specialization of disciplines, the "two cultures" divide of arts and humanities versus science and technology, professional schools, and on and on.  All these metrics and institutions put an emphasis on standardization over standards, uniformity over idiosyncratic creativity, and working in a linear pattern towards a goal.  Everything about work (beginning with the physical structure of the office building or the assembly line and going to Human Resources departments that structure and enforce uniform regulations) was structured to maintain those separations. 

We now live in a world where work and leisure are impossibly intermixed and conjoined, at our desktops, on planes, in airports, at picnics, over the dinner table.  We need new rules and new norms and new standards for the world we live in now.  What we do not need is nostalgia for the practices developed 150 years ago for a world that no longer is relevant to the way we live now.

Please, Mr. Keller.  We need you.  We need you and "Nicholas Carr,  Jaron Lanier, Gary Small, Gigi Vorgan, William Powers, et al" (as you cite them) and other researchers in this field to stop whining and start thinking in creative and innovative ways about how we can remake and redesign our habits and practices, our schools and workplaces, for the world we inhabit now--not the one that some of us, of a certain age, were born into.  The world has changed.  We have changed.  Like Jefferson and Adams, we need to think about what we need to maximize the opportunities of the world we live in, not the old one we remember, often in a far more golden and glowy way than is deserved.  IT'S NOT THE TECHNOLOGY, STUPID!  It's about us, you and me, and how we can learn to live, work, and learn together, not just for our future and our kids' future, but for the world that, all of us, together, very much live in right now, today.

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Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come."

 

Fast Company's  Anya Kamenetz:  "Davidson is a professor at Duke University, a dyslexic, and a geek: The combination has made her a savvy, realistic, and observant critic of todays technoculture. [She] thinks the time has come to reassess our approach ... to everything.  She isn't the first to point out that modern-day anxieties about texting tots have analogues in earlier centuries. But her work is the most powerful yet to insist that we can and should manage the impact of these changes in our lives."


For more information, visit www.nowyouseeit.net or order on Amazon.com by clicking on the book below.

 


 

Ruby Sinreich

Not just another curmudgeon

This would be an unremarkable story about yet another curmudgeon who resents how the change in communications and information is leaving him behind, if not for the fact that Mr. Keller is a leader of one of the most important institutions in the world in the field of information and communications. If he doesn't want to use Twitter, fine. But if he can't understand how this cultutral shift most definitely is changing The New York Times as well as the world the NYT operates in, then I fear quite a lot for the future of his deperately-needed institution.

Urban Exile

It's not, and yet it is.

One may say that it's not the technology, and I get all the good points you make. But technology is modifying our brains in ways that are hard to fathom, both soft and hard wiring.

Soft wiring: Today I watched this horrifying video shot in Joplin MO as a monster tornado ripped a gas station mini mart to shreds while all the people cowered in the freezer. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnvxJZucds&NR=1) I was glued to the scene, but will go to bed tonight traumatized by something that by all rights I would never experience living where I do, either first or second hand. I am not sure that I am really a better informed person or even a better person for having seen and heard these things, but I am pretty sure I'll have nightmares.

Hard wiring: I recently downloaded a video game to my Droid called Flight Deck to amuse myself in a rather long line. A simple game it is, all about landing as many planes and helicopters as possible without crashing any. Quickly, this nutty, unwinnable game became addictive and I was utterly obsessed. I was playing the game instead of writing, interrupting more valuable pursuits to play the game, getting "better at it" but constantly frustrated because it's geared to make me always lose. The next day I was seeing visions of the game floating in the air while I was looking at others things: I mean, it had visually impressed itself so strongly on my vision center that I was seeing it when it was not even on! That IS the technology. 

Attention defiticit? ADD? Killer highschoolers? Unrelated to the technology? I don't know, but my gut tells me that to a very strong degree it IS the technology.

Cathy Davidson

No, It's not the technology--or, rather, everything is

Hi, Urban Exile,  I totally sympathize with what you are saying and, surely, technology such as video allows us to see things we didn't see before.  There is no question.   Does that give us bad dreams?  Or empathy?  Not that such is a binary--in this case, bad dreams are precisely because of your empathy, your sense of horror and your ability to imagine the horror that fellow humans have had to endure.   If you did not see the video, you would not have that specific source of empathy but clearly you are a deep person and, I am sure, even without knowing you, that your empathic response could have been incurred seeing a homeless person on the street or a child crying.   In other words, the technology is a conduit, and we each, in our individual ways, use that conduit for our own purpose.  A less kind person might get jazzed on the power of the storm, not on the terror of those whose lives were, in an instant, uprooted, by forces that make our video cameras and our individual selves seem small and paltry indeed.

 

Are games addictive?  Oh, yeah.   As a kid it was double dutch jump rope, with my best friends, day in and day out, getting better and better and better and better and sometimes sitting in English glass and hearing the click of the rope and imagining that, this time, when I touched the ground and then lept up and clapped and pirouetted, and touched the ground again, it would be perfect, and, yes, this time the ropes would continue to sing, they would not slack their, stinging against my ankles.

 

My point?   A jumprope is a technology and so is your Droid.   Anything that enhances our own human abilities is a technology.  Witness the wheel.   Witness writing (which, of course, Socrates would sure would lead us all to distraction and shallowness and loneliness and superficiality too, all those shallow writers thinking words on paper was communication).   The point is we blame technology when it is new and then it becomes old and habituated and then we find a new source of distraction on which to lay our claims to human frailty.  

 

Your concern shines through your comment.   Thanks for writing so eloquently. 

Porton

Unfortunately (and fortunately) it is the technology

A growing research literature strongly suggests that formal features of new technologies have the potential to radically rewire the human brain. Ever since McLuhan posited that media change our brains irrespective of content, we've discovered how its effects in both physiological and psychological ways implode into us. One of the more unfortunate outcomes, for example, is how increased orienting responses caused by television's quick cuts, constant pans and zooms has been deemed to be the reason for the high correlation between numbers of hours of TV watched with ADD in children (see R. Kubey & M. Csijszentmihalyi , 2002, Scientific American, Feb. For one such example)
It IS the technology, Which is sometimes fortunate and sometimes not.

Cathy Davidson

Sorry . . .

 . . . . I respectfully disagree with the conclusion made in your comment.  The correlation between quick cuts in TV and ADD makes a lot of assumptions about "value" that are debatable and, in fact, have been debated by serious researchers with very different numbers and interpretations of the numbers.   The study you cite does not conclusively sort out control groups, baselines, or many other socio-cultural factors nor is the "before" in this study anything like a definitive "baseline" of perfectly desired and desirable cognitive ability.  Nor can it.  So many factors are involved that reducing a study to a statement about what any one person can or cannot do, how, why, and when and for what reason requires a leap of faith and, in that endeavor, we all must be modest in our claims.  Technology is neither panacea nor destroyer.   That is why we have to build institutions and modes of learning best suited to take advantage of the technologies we use in our daily life.

 

ADD is of special interest to me because of its virtual non-existence as a diagnosis and now its ubiquitous diagnosis.   Why did our era single out this behavior for diagnosis?   The Victorians diagnosed neurasthenia--which no one know suffers from.  The disesase didn't go away; the diagnosis coalesced a series of cultural conditions into a "disease" and we believed in it, treated it, and then forgot about it.   ADD is a measure of an inability or unwillingness to attend to certain tasks.  Attention Interest Deficit is a better term for it.   It is very rare for someone to be able to attend to any task.   The same child who cannot pay attention in school might be able to play video games with great focus--or, at a different level, might be able to take care of a herd of goats or hamsters with great precision, responsibility, and attention.   The terms (including ADD) often are tautological, defining themselves.  I'm not saying ADD doesn't exist.  I wonder, though, if we can blame technology or also need to look at a range of factors including environment, prescription drugs, and lack of physical exercise as kids' mobility is checked by social practices (those play dates instead of play), dependence on transportation, and increasing regimentation and restriction of physical activity in schools.  All are part of what contributes to how we act in the world.

 

Technology changes the brain because everything does.   Our tendency to separate technology as the prime mover of change is one of the great constants of human history, at least back to Socrates insisting that writing degraded attention, depersonalized human contact, and debased logic .  Fortunately, his best pupil, Plato, didn't really believe that conclusion.  He wrote down Socrates' eloquent discourse and unequalled master of the dialogic oral tradition for posterity.  

Urban Exile

Much to Think About

First, I am delighted by this conversation and thank you and Porton for your additions to the dialogue that you started. Indeed, this forum is one of the things that is oh-so-right about technology, isn't it? Our ideas move towards each other with the precision of mathematical formulae, mixing and facilitating the speedy transformation of our thoughts and consciousness. Good thing.

I believe, though, that to suggest as you seem to that "all technology alike" is a false premise that weakens your argument that "it's not the technology, stupid". I contemplated for some time your analogy of computer technology to Socrates writing and I found it lacking.

First, I think that Socrates had a good point: Where once men memorized the entire Odyssey and made careers out of reciting its nearly 130 thousand words, today most people can't seem to remember what's happening next week without Google Calendar or a Palm Pilot (the latter already ancient technology by today's standards). The pen did become a crutch for the mind, and the typewriter and it's great grandchild the computer have continued that process of increasing dependency of the brain on external aids to remember. Memory must be practiced or it withers and dies. If we become an imemorious people, I wonder what that suggests for our future?

Second, handwriting has an active "craft" element to it that is lacking in digital composition. I refer you to the marvelous guide to creativity The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. One of the basics of following Julia's method to greater success as an artist of any kind is to keep an artist's journal -- specifically a handwritten journal. She notes the unique humanity of the hand and the way it can hold a pen, notes the tactile experience of the hand against the fresh paper, notes the slow rhythm of writing by hand as opposed to the choppier, faster movement of fingers on a keyboard. The thoughts flow with ink, go exploring, and find unexpected ideas that were not preconceived or imitated from other digital sources, but are completely and wholly new and unique.  I have kept such an artists journal and once I tried to type it in my computer. Result? Failure. There was no place to doodle. I was not able to see later the changing colors of the ink, the switch in my writing from a bad day to a good one, nor appreciate the satisfying bulk of the pages as they accumulated.

Yes, I know. All of my comments are anecdotal and far from scientific. But I am an artist and not a scientist so these are the terms in which I think. But in my artist's opinion, handwriting is no more like this composition I am doing on the screen than Jackson Pollock is like computer animation. Because it lacks BODY. Indeed, let us ponder for a good long moment the disembodied nature of today's "friendships", of our violent outburst in war computer games, of online sex, and ask: Is this really satisfying? Or by participating in these disembodied relationships are we voting out living a holistic life that involves hands, feet, hair and other parts too in favor of the life of the mind only? I learn through from my body, as a recent spill down the stairs reminded me: And I love my teacher!

This is a great topic you've introduced. It has provoked in me a veritable storm of ideas, most of which are not expressed here. Kind regards...etc.

Cathy Davidson

Thanks for writing

Thanks for this engaged discussion.  I absolutely do not think "all technology is alike."  I do think a lot of the jeremiads about how "technology is ruining the brain" take a similar form.  The analogy I was making was not about the technology but about the way we express our fear of technology.   That fear homogenizes technologies that are, precisely, individual and also homogenizes us as humans.   Our will, customs, institutions, practices, habits, philosophies, and scientific method(s) stand between us and what we even perceive to be "technology."   Many new technolologies simply are assimilated into life without anxiety.  My interest is in the meaning of our anxieties and how we can do better to prepare ourselves to use what tools/technologies we have in the best, most productive, most imaginative ways.   Saying "youth are going to the dogs because of X technology" gets us nowhere.  

 

This is EXACTLY the discussion I want us all to have.  Thanks for moving it along. 

Urban Exile

Perhaps You Are Tired of This Thread? But I Am Still Thinking

I am thinking, slowly, about your comments. Which made me think of something else: The propensity to fire off a response simply because it is fast and easy to do so. It can make me lazy about doing the necessary deep thinking before responding, whether it's to a fascinating thread on HASTAC or an email to a friend. I just finished handwriting a thank you note to a dear one, and I felt how I was slowed down and made more precise regarding every word I set down to paper. Could I write slower on the computer? I suppose I could, but it will take some serious discipline to learn how!  

I will not therefore respond to all your good comments above right now. I will wait. The silence will be fecund, I promise.

Don't you feel the velocity of life ever increasing? I do. Life becomes faster in direct proportion to the speed of emails, stock trades and the ability to report a war live from a cell phone. This is happening at such a pace that I have not, nor will I ever, have time to evolve to adapt. I do not like this speed. It is not natural to me. And I believe it changes everything about how we live, including our language, and not in all cases for the better. Why, for instance, do so many people start every sentence with "so..." now? I have pondered this. "So" is an adverb or conjunction, and can be used to start a question or to mean "therefore". But now it is used broadly by under 40s as what I call "acoustic filler", that is, a sound one makes to guard against silence (oh, eloquent silence!), to prohibit others from speaking, or simply to make it sound as if one didn't need even one millisecond to ponder the previous remark before responding. In other words, it seems that in this fast-talking world we now feel the need to fill every silence whether we have something to say or (so often) not.

 

Now I have more thinking to do about this theme. Especially the new technologies that we see raising dust on the horizon, those newer, smarter machines that will complete the link-up between our brains and the machine. Those will make so called "Smart" phones look like idiots, won't they? Or will they simply make idiots of us?

 

Thanks again for the chat.

Cathy Davidson

Velocity + Time = Life

There is no question that the amount of email in a daily work life is greater than the amount of snail mail that used to come into one's life every day.   Right now the average business person receives about 33 non-spam, answer-required emails a day.   That is a lot.   But is the work speed up a result of technology or is it the result of technology PLUS a downsizing of the workforce even as workflow increases?   There is no way to measure "speed up" in a vacuum.   My point is technology must be assessed within a far larger constellation of economic, cultural, social, and even intellectual and scientific factors.   "Blaming technology" or looking back at "the past" (when "the past" means one's remembered youth) don't get us far.  I'm interested in helping us so my job is to understand all the factors in as complex and supple a way as possible.   Nostalgia is always a very poor lever for change and so is fingerpointing.   I am by no means a technophile.  I'm techno-pragmatic.

Urban Exile

Anecdotally, I know the answer to that one.

My point is not to blame technology. Certainly, at the end of the day technology is only a product of the genius of human beings, and the responsible party for its employment for good or bad is the human soul and its capacity for compassion and its ability to determine real value.  I certainly would agree that a blanket blaming of technology is a poor approach, but neither would I say that preference for older forms of technology necessarily constitutes mere nostalgia. Sometimes tried and true really is better and new is not always better.

That said, I have an anecdote to test your question "But is the work speed up a result of technology or is it the result of technology PLUS a downsizing of the workforce even as workflow increases?"

In my multifarious past I was at one point an indexer at the Time Magazine group. This was in the 80s, just pre internet. My job involved being a Katherine Hepburn type as in the movie "Desk Set" who answered calls from the Editorial and Business sides of the magazines and answered questions about the whole world as well as the editorial histories of our magazines. All our information was contained on index cards that had been typed over the years by industrious, bookish souls. These cards were housed in enormous, beige file cabinets with tiny drawers, and on the shelves of a capacious reference library. There were 14 people working in this department, and being a child of a bookseller, I was very happy there.

As in Desk Set, one day some green screened computers were installed and the new new Nexus and Lexus data bases arrived with great fanfare to the research library. Some of us younger indexers were chosen to learn the new computerized system. For a while, we were charged with doing all the work we'd done before PLUS duplicating it by inputting it into the computer sytem which was a kind of Corporate Intranet. Magazine by magazine, the old index card system was dropped. Older employees were "offered"early retirement packages. The department was reduced by 3. Now we younger ones were not only doing double our own work but also picking up the indexing the the three retired employees had left behind. No one could keep up. We typed faster and faster, and eventually to cut a long story short, the department was reduced to two frantic people managed by the Main Library. There is no doubt that the advent of this technology (Intranet, Lexus/Nexus and, later, the Internet) made the jobs of 12 people disappear. The quality of worklife of the remaining overworked two was poor, and they soon retired as well.

The advent of the technology definitely increased the spped of our work life pre-firings, and also caused the firings themselves. The lack of compassion on the part of the corporation to repurpose those workers was the result of a lack of human compassion for the corporate work force. But it remains that the lack of compassion by the higher ups was a condition that had ALWAYS existed. Only the technology made it possible for them to imopse their lack of heart on others and dispose of the workers.

I doubt the resulting work was one ounce better.