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Keller’s Lament

I’ve gone back and forth so many times, it seems as if a comment at this point would be addressing ancient history. On May 18th, 2011, Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, wrote an essay called ‘The Twitter Trap.’ In the piece he airs his complaints, misgivings and thoughts about Twitter, Facebook and the current era of social media.

I came to Keller’s essay through a series of tweets taking him to task for his ignorance of social media and of Twitter in particular. The predominantly tech-oriented crowd I follow on Twitter quickly formed a consensus opinion that this was further evidence of Keller’s cluelessness—Hey you kids, get off of my lawn! Old mainstream media attacking the new social media, hidden behind a modified paywall, the form of the communication echoing the misguided opinions. Full disclosure, I’m a long-time subscriber to the ink-on-paper instantiation of the New York Times. When I finally read the piece, I chose the printed version. Later on, I re-read it online.

Keller’s lament centers around three central points: digital idolatry, the price exacted by innovation and the displacement of essential intellectual values and cultural practices. Keller begins with this opening gambit:

Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.

The context of family, children and addictive drugs is an interesting one. Many of Keller’s hopes and fears regarding social media are threaded through this particular story. But let’s start with digital idolatry.

We’ve been riding a wave of technology, real-time networks, big data and full duplex (read/write) distributed media. All of these trends kick against a centralized professional media. It’s assumed that a critic of this wave is trying to swim back upstream against the current of time. Dissenting opinions are dismissed by the crowd as uninformed, but should we uncritically accept everything this revolution in technology and media offers? Should we simply trust that the wave knows where it’s going? When digital technology becomes an idol, we religiously make ourselves into more efficient cogs in the machine. A new fundamentalism is spawned that treats dissenters with the same disdain as all those who’ve strayed from the fold.

The price exacted by innovation is a well-worn theme. Keller cites a number of examples:

  • Rote memorization vs. The Printing Press
  • Penmanship vs. Typewriting
  • Slide Rule vs. Calulator
  • Sustained Attention vs. Twitter and YouTube

When something new comes along, something current is displaced. We type instead of writing by hand; we use a calculator and the slide rule stays in the drawer; we look things up online instead of practicing mnemonic techniques; and we consume a never-ending stream of hors d’oeuvres never getting to the main course. The displaced option remains, but loses value. If we are what we do, then we are most certainly changed. Unused muscles atrophy while new muscles grow strong through the patterns of the new activity. The question is, will we regret anything we’ve lost.

The intellectual values that Keller fears may be added to the endangered species list are:

  • Real rapport and conversation
  • Complexity
  • Acuity
  • Patience
  • Wisdom
  • Intimacy

In particular, Keller focuses on the 140 character limit to the hypertext that makes up a tweet. Conversations don’t have the room the stretch out and breath, no real rapport can be established. The micro-message medium only allows for the exchange of communiques. Ideas are reduced and compacted to flow efficiently through the message dispatch system. Keller asks whether the soil of social media is fertile enough to support these deeper values.

Twitter, and any other hypertext-based social media, communicates by value or by reference. That means for a short message, the entire value of the communication, can be contained in the tweet. When the tweet communicates by reference, it contains some description and a hypertext link that points to a long form communication that exists outside the messaging system. Newspapers accomplish this with headlines.

The conversation Keller hoped to incite seemed to quickly devolve into the kind of childish bickering he parodies in his essay. He rather seems to enjoy activating the reflexive behavior of the digital punditry. By limiting the responses to his essay to 140 character telegrams, he manages to demonstrate the poverty of the micro-message medium. This may, in fact, be the meaning of the essay’s title, “The Twitter Trap.”?

Keller opens his essay with the information that he and his wife have allowed their 13-year old daughter to open and operate a Facebook account. The feeling, he reports, was like passing a pipe of crystal meth to his child. The intellectual values and cultural practices that Keller sees slipping over the horizon may or may not be available to his daughter. They may be the price exacted by the highly addictive nature of real-time networks and social media. Despite that risk, he allows his young teenager to venture forth into the Network. Of course the fact that the teen had accumulated 171 friends in a few hours meant that permission was a mere formality. The social graph already existed, the online account merely facilitated its inscription into Facebook’s systems.

The essay ends with a question about the future of the soul. Rather than turning to the scientist, engineer or technologist, instead he quotes a novelist:

In Meg Wolitzer’s charming new tale, “The Uncoupling,” there is a wistful passage about the high-school cohort my daughter is about to join. Wolitzer describes them this way: “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

Steve Jobs often talks about the intersection of technology and liberal arts, but it seems like the two often talk past each other. Neither takes the other very seriously. With the exception of Apple, there doesn’t seem to be much of a business model in it. And the soul, it seems, is in mortal danger with every generation. But that’s no excuse to assume this couldn’t be the time when things turn out differently.


Published in culture difference identity network social graph value