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
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.