About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Enough complaining about blogs, FaceBook and Twitter

I am getting a bit tired of all this complaining about our alleged obsession with connectivity and how dehumanizing it is. It doesn’t help, of course, that most of the complainers have their own blogs, FaceBook or Twitter accounts, like Russell Bishop over at the Huffington Post. The fact that I often find out about these rants because someone posts them on FaceBook, or that I read them on my Kindle (where I get the Post delivered several times a day) just adds deliciousness to the irony.

Bishop is, according to his byline in the Post, an “editor-at-large, author, executive coach, and performance improvement consultant.” Whatever. Apparently this background prompted him to ask why “we are so fascinated with the notion of instant, easy connection,” to which the obvious answer would be “why not?” In the usual predictable Luddite fashion (and despite admitting to having a blog, FaceBook, Linkedln, Plaxo and Twitter accounts!), Bishop says that he “can’t risk not being connected, but am I really connected?” Well, it depends on what you mean by ”connected.” Trivially, you are, meaning that every time you post or read a post by someone else on any of the above mentioned platforms, you are “connecting” in a meaningful, if somewhat special, sense of the word. But, argues Bishop, this is artificial connectivity. Well, yes, literally it is, considering that it is done through electronic media. Then again little of what we do, including driving cars and living in houses, is not “artificial,” an obvious fact is often spectacularly missed by Luddites of all stripes.

Bishop laments that “communication skills seem to be dropping rapidly” and that we don’t know “how to talk through difficult issues.” anymore. Are you kidding? I don’t know about Bishop’s blog, but I think I communicate at least somewhat clearly about difficult issues, and most readers of this blog are very articulate indeed. Granted, there isn’t much articulation one can do through Twitter (to which I do not subscribe), but then again the thing isn’t designed for deep discussions, it is meant to let people know instantly what is happening to a given person at a particular point in time. Yes, most of what goes on at Twitter belongs to the category of irrelevant trivia, but let’s be frank, so does most of the content of our everyday conversations with family, neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Besides, Twitter has been used so far to try to start a revolution (in Moldovia) and to let Senator McCain’s constituents know how exactly the Senate (in his opinion) was wasting time and money.

Bishop goes on to complain that we are “rapidly learning to substitute what we really need — warm, intimate, in-depth connection and communication — with symbols of being connected.” Maybe that’s the case for Bishop, I don’t know. I am happily and warmly connected to my wife, my daughter, my close friends and a few other members of my family. With the rest of humanity, I don’t need quite that much warmth, but I like to know from time to time what distant friends and former students are up to — so I check their FaceBook updates.

“Real life happens in the spaces between blog posts, email and SMS’s,” declares Bishop. Baloney, say I. So-called “real” life is often overestimated, considering that for most people it consists of jobs they don’t like, continuous struggle to make ends meet, and often unhappy human relations. Moreover, since blogging, for instance, is about writing, and writing has always been considered a high and meaningful form of expression, how does it not count as “real life”? Is it only the rare Mark Twain or Ian McEwan (how do you like that random paring?) who are living a real life when they shut themselves up in their room to write? Shouldn’t we welcome the fact that so many people can now easily and freely express themselves and be challenged by others about what they think and write?

Bishop concludes: “could it be that we are more likely to be texting someone else than connecting with the person in front of us?” Hell yes, because the person in front of me is often a random stranger with whom I likely have little or nothing in common, while the person I’m texting is a loved one, or someone I need to alert about my delay in meeting him for an important lunch.

The basic flaw underlying Bishop’s essay, and many others like it that I’ve come across lately, is that it is based on a false dichotomy: if I spend time blogging, I don’t have warm relations with my family; if I exchange a short SMS with my brother I don’t bother talking to him at length about serious issues; and so on and so forth. This is nonsense, and demonstrably not factually true. We can easily do both, and the two types of activity actually reinforce each other. I do feel closer to my brothers in Italy just because I get to know what they had for breakfast through their FaceBook page. The alternative would be to limit ourselves to phone calls (which we have anyway, usually via Skype video, another welcome electronic innovation). Of course, just like any technology, one can become obsessed with electronic networking and plainly overdo it. But human beings have always found a way to get obsessed and waste their time in one way or another. I can imagine the elders at the time of Gutenberg complaining about a socially disconnected youth spending its time reading books and in the process losing their ability to communicate orally. A few centuries later, miraculously, the spoken word is still going strong.

My advice to techno-phobes around the world: relax, take the long view on humanity’s foibles, and if you really have to complain about blogging and FaceBook, don’t do it by posting a link to your blog entry on your FaceBook account.


  1. All these new techniques for communicating seem like the logical progression from cave art. Would he have us writing on cave walls?

    Ironically, those same mediums, including maybe cave art, are also used to draw people together "in real life." How many popular bloggers advertise that they will be in town and want to meet up at some pub (hoping to get free beer)?

  2. It all reminds me of an old cartoon. The text of the cartoon, in typewrite font, goes something like "It was a glorious morning to the out and about, with the fresh leaves moving in the gentle wind. The sun was warming the ground with the last of the dew still hanging onto the grass." The picture shows a guy sitting in what appears to be dank cellar, hunched over a typewriter.

  3. I don't know if I'd be sane without internet, facebook, twitter...

    I am not good at face to face or phone communications.

    Online communications put me on a level playing field, and have allowed me to find friends of all ages and nationalities et al.

  4. Because of Facebook I am in daily contact with my sister, who lives a thousand miles away, and my best friend from Grade Nine, who I hadn't seen in 40 years. I recently joined a group extolling the virtues of living in northwest England, not because I live there, but because my ancestors are from there--- just for fun.

    I spend more time on line than I used to, but less time watching TV!

    No bad experiences to report so far.

  5. I don't quite understand what connections Bishop is drawing on. The article you posted is a complete mess.

    His premise is that the internet and social networking in specific are making us increasingly isolated in "real life." To prove his point, he essentially states things that I am sure have been said before the invention of the internet.

    Now, I suppose he could say that, the internet is only quickening up this process. But, I think the complete opposite argument could be made. One could easily say that, because of websites like Facebook, events in "real life", whether it be protests or panel discussions are much easier to organize. The evidence he uses seems totally unrelated, and don' have any real connection (beside the one he creates himself).

    This reminds me of the older folk who always complain about the younger generation. I don't think it has ever been the case that, the older generation hasn't said, "these kids are so ill-mannered, and don't understand...

  6. My advice to techno-phobes around the world: relax, take the long view on humanity’s foibles, and if you really have to complain about blogging and FaceBook, don’t do it by posting a link to your blog entry on your FaceBook account.Amen!


  7. >"...alleged obsession with connectivity and how dehumanizing it is."

    There has been a change in the world but I'm not sure I would use the term "dehumanizing". What we have done is to reallocate our time. Before the internet, I used to spend maybe an hour a day communicating with people. Now I spend more like 4 hours a day reading and writing e-mail or reading and responding on blogs like this one. That's 3 hours a day of something else that I have given up. At times I regret that change. I don't walk as much as I used to, I don't fish as much as I used to, I don't keep my chores caught up as well as I used to. All in exchange for more "connectedness". Is that a good thing or not? I'm still evaluating that. But I'm not even a good example. I don't have a cell phone, I don't use twitter, IM or Facebook. I do have a blog and a MySpace account, neither of which I have posted to in over a year. I'm too busy "communicating". It does seem to me that people who manage to use all of those media must have given up even more of the alternative activities than I have given up. I'll equate it to a period in my teen years when I spent most of my waking hours, (when not in school), lying in my bed reading. I read a lot of books but I look back on that time with some regret that I didn't get outdoors and actually DO something. I'm inclined to believe that people who are constantly connected are missing out on some other valuable aspects of life.

  8. "My advice to techno-phobes around the world: relax, take the long view on humanity’s foibles, and if you really have to complain about blogging and FaceBook, don’t do it by posting a link to your blog entry on your FaceBook account."

    Okay. Mine is mostly for family so no worries, I won't. LOL

    In forming his 22 year old world view our son is going through his anti-texting anti-TV phrase of life. And he's definitely not techno phobic.. he's remarkably technical, he can fix JUST ABOUT ANYTHING.

    If I text my girls they readily text me back, sometimes we have hour long conversations that way. If I text our son on something important or weighty tho he just won't text me back. Har! He wants to have the conversation face to face or at least over the phone.

    He is a deep thinker and an intelligent person but tends to feel like maybe too much is said that isn't meant or things and shades of meaning are lost
    in that kind of conversation.

  9. Sound post. FB has become an excellent tool that has allowed me to become much more involved in my sister's daily life. She lives in London, England, our mother in Montreal, Canada, and I in Baltimore, USA.

    Those who wag their finger condescendingly at different mediums of communication often are projecting the lack of relationship development in their own lives, or even often the feeling of being left out. Of course there are exceptions to every rule.

    Being critical of online social tools through the use of that tool erodes credibility at the very least.

    I'm a new follower to this blog, I look forward to reading back, and forward.

  10. I get tired of this idea that the internet isn't "real" just because you can't see it. The abbreviation IRL suggests that virtual communication isn't "real" and is therefore inferior. But it is real - just different.

  11. I'm amused at this idea:
    that we don’t know “how to talk through difficult issues.” anymore.Please let me know exactly when it was that we DID know 'how to talk through difficult issues.'? This Utopian time period seems to be missing from my history books.


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