Alain de Botton recently blogged about “one of the challenges of our time”: re-learning how to concentrate. To sit quietly and think without distraction. I agree, except I’m not sure if we’ve ever known how to do so.
Technology broadly defined is usually seen as both culprit and savior. For example, we get nothing done when compulsively checking our BlackBerries, so we must take Adderall to focus. The issues related to how technology affects the way we think are complicated. But apparently this doesn’t deter smart people from making uninformed, simplistic judgement calls.
Steve Coll is a veteran journalist who writes for the New Yorker. (Here’s my 1,700 word review of his book on the CIA and Afghanistan.) Like any curious person, Coll is reflecting on how the internet has changed his profession. Just recently he went on Twitter for the first time. Here’s his report:
I had never been on the Twitter site until I read his recent posts…Last night, fearing what I would learn, I went on the site and scoped out my Twitter fingerprints. There were dozens of recent tweets emanating from South Asia linking to an interview I had given to the Times of India about Indo-Pakistani relations. There were a handful of nice tweets from random people reading one of my books. It all seemed fine. It also seemed like a space that did not require my direct participation anytime soon.
Despite this five second superficial investigation, Coll goes on to riff on whether “technological systems have moral characteristics” and the “qualities of excellence in a great tweet.” New rule: stop listening when someone refers to it as “the Twitter site.”
Michael Lewis, God bless him and his brilliant journalism, alas does the same here:
I don’t tweet, I don’t Twitter, I couldn’t even tell you how to read or where to find a Twitter message. I don’t actually see the point of limiting communication to a haiku. I find the whole effusion of communications technology bewildering. All you have to do is overhear a certain number of cell phone conversations to see that the vast majority of what people say and write to each other is totally pointless.
In other words: I don’t want to try it, I don’t know nothin’ about it, but I sure as hell will judge it. I find this willful ignorance unforgivable — just spend a week using the free technology and see how it goes? Then decide how you feel.
I discussed the issue of information diets, bits vs. books, and whether the web is harming our ability to concentrate in this piece for The American. It is long and therefore itself poses a concentration challenge! But I do hope you read it if you haven’t already. I believe it represents one of the most thorough analyses of these issues yet written.
The Atlantic is doing a series on the information diets of notable journalists. Felix Salmon is the only one who uses an RSS reader. Susan Orlean uses Twitter to get news headlines which I personally find inefficient. Everyone subscribes to tons of print magazines.