Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Electronic Media

George Packer, writing on his regular New Yorker blog a couple of weeks ago, offered a reasonable (and, in my view, necessary) critique of our culture's obsession with electronic media. At one point, he compared Twitter to crack cocaine. "Who doesn't want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That's what drugs are for, and that's why people become addicted to them," he wrote. "Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I'm morally superior to it, but because I don't think I could handle it." 

The blogosphere predictably erupted, prompting Packer to protest, in a follow-up post, that "techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn't like to be asked questions."

Yowza. Anyway, somewhere along the way I wound up on the blog of a person named Laryssa Wirstiuk, who describes herself, with no apparent irony, as a "24 year-old creative writer and entrepreneur." She had written a snarky, mean-spirited piece of satire that implied Packer was elitist, pretentious, self-aggrandizing, and more. I wrote in the comments section that I didn't feel like she had added anything to the discussion, and that the tone of her piece "exemplified everything I despised about my generation." She wrote me wanting to know why.
I responded that I thought Packer's concerns were legitimate; that these kinds of media are demonstrably addictive, and arguably harmful (here I referred to the review I wrote a few months back of John Freeman's The Tyranny of E-mail); and while I found her piece clever, I finished it feeling sad. "I wondered what you cared about," I wrote, "and whether you thought a society of people sucked into their screens is an ultimately positive or hopeful vision for our future."

She posted a version of that e-mail on her blog, accompanied by a response. In it, she acknowledged the narcoticizing effect of Twitter and e-mail but argues that one has the choice to use or not to use--and that we should each take responsibility for our own actions. Finally, in a burst of sunny patriotism, she asserted, "We are lucky enough to live in a country that...allows individuals to innovate and carve out their own niches."

Leaving aside the latter rhetoric, which was clearly lifted from a GOP speech writer, I wanted to respond. 

I agree that we need to take responsibility for our behavior, that we have the power to choose. And that people have always engaged in risky, abusive behavior. Twitter doesn't make people narcissistic and compulsive, people make people narcissistic and compulsive...or something. A major difference between Twitter and crack cocaine, however, is that crack, for better or for worse (I would think better), is maligned by social stigma. If I were to start smoking crack tomorrow, I would suffer social consequences, in addition to the psychological and physical ones. Burying my head in a screen for eight or twelve hours a day, on the other hand, has become deeply normal (by which I mean socially acceptable). For many people, working professionals especially, there are even social pressures to stay connected.

Without distance, one loses perspective. Which is why I found Packer's piece valuable. I thought it was a minor but important attempt to offer perspective.

I recognize the inherent irony in posting this discussion on a blog. But such is our modern world. The Internet--Facebook, Twitter, et al--are here to stay. The question--a question we should be asking ourselves continually--is how to harness these tools in a beneficial way.


  1. I agree. How can we harness these tools in a beneficial way?

    Gee. "The boredom, the sameness." "Pain of the present." Are our lives really so boring and painful? To be honest, I'm a bit more worried about Reality TV than internet use. Who are these people? And why are we, as a society and/or individually, seemingly so hungry for attention?

    I think the choice of the word "follower," used by the Twitter community, speaks volumes about electronic media addiction. Forget about crack! Isn't "follower" the same word we use in the context of religion and cults? Anyway, the Twitter comparison to crack is a bit over the top for me as it belittles the severity of that particular physical addiction.

    Many years ago, long before the world wide web, a study was done about television. One hundred families were invited to participate -- they would all give up television for a year. At the beginning, there was more reading, more family activity, travel, etc. As the months went on, though, some of the families began to drop out of the program. Some, actually, hadn't lasted a week! Ultimately, not one family made it through the entire year. They had to have their daily TV fix.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    Religion, cults, Twitter -- they're all the same. Perhaps if we were better educated, we might not need to be following the crowd, the trend, the other. Perhaps we could learn to think as individuals. On the other hand, nah, never gonna happen.

  2. Excellent point about the use of the word "follower." Yet another troubling aspect of the medium.