When people complain that Twitter is a waste of time, and ruining our brains by shortening our attention span I remember the reaction when I first demonstrated the concept behind the worldwide web to the bosses at the company where I worked, back in the 90s. They said it was a fad, that it would never catch on. Stop wasting your time on it, they said.
Fortunately for them I didn’t listen, so when they finally came in screaming “we need a web site, we need a web site!” I was able to say, “here’s one I prepared earlier”…
Those were the days.
At other times I speculate that when the printing press was invented, the same thing happened. “It’ll never catch on,” people would have said.
It turns out, that’s exactly what they said. Well, not exactly. But effectively. Take a look at this bit of blurb on the back of Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
From its very early days the printing press was viewed by some as black magic. For the most part, however, it was welcomed as a “divine art” by Western churchmen and statesmen. Sixteenth-century Lutherans hailed it for emancipating Germans from papal rule, and seventeenth-century English radicals viewed it as a weapon against bishops and kings. While an early colonial governor of Virginia thanked God for the absence of printing in his colony, a century later, revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that undermined the rule of priests and kings. Yet scholars continued to praise printing as a peaceful art. They celebrated the advancement of learning while expressing concern about information overload.
Now read through that passage again and notice a couple of things. “Revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that undermined the rule of priests and kings”. Strike you as familiar?
And what about “they celebrated the advancement of learning while expressing concern about information overload”?
At a time when revolutions in the middle east are being played out using social media like Twitter, the similarities with the way the printing press upset the balance of power are startling. And the responses of those in power – not just the “kings” but the “priest” (who today could be said to be the gatekeepers to knowledge, the journalists, writers and academics) are also similar: it’s the end of learning, the end of deep thought and calm reflection; infomation overload really means too much information, and you can never have too much of that if it sets you free.
Admittedly a lot of that information is rubbish: I try my best not to read the comments on news sites and YouTube for fear of my brain throttling me in self-defence. But for all the rubbish, there is good stuff out there, and more of it, and more opportunities to publish without having to gain the approval of an editor. Okay, Twitter has its faults but they’re actually the faults of the masses, not of the medium. The same with printed text. For now, it’s enough to know that just as there will always be people who think any new technology will be the end of civilisation as we know it, so there always have been.
The irony is that each new generation of doomsayers has been educated by the very same technology their predecessors said would be their doom. When 3D holograms are being charged with threatening our very existence, the people making the accusation will probably be using Twitter to do it.