The Impact of the New Tech: Use, Then Judge

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.

22 comments on “The Impact of the New Tech: Use, Then Judge
  • The title of this post gave me a grin. It’s a “Dog Bites Man” kind of a title, except with a great punchline: apparently, this fact really is news to a huge fraction of the people writing about twitter.

  • Alain de Botton to the contrary, I can’t see how relearning to concentrate is self-indulgent– it’s a necessity for anyone whose life has got that far off track.

    He says: “To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.”

    Such Gallic nonsense!

    He goes on: “We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere in the globe, something may occur… that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.”

    We are not made to feel any such thing, unless we are materialistic philosphes.

    The incontinent de Botton can’t restrain himself: “We leave an auditorium vowing to reconsider our lives in the light of a film’s values.”

    Garbage! Only the French, the Japanese, and besotted Warhol acolytes do that.

    I have 203 subscriptions in Google Reader, but I hasten to say that purely as an aesthetic experience, I’d rather read one of Walter Isaacson’s biographies or even the original Joy of Cooking than almost any blog.

    My news feeds are from Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune, New Scientist, The New York Times, The Register, Reuters, Der Spiegel, The Times, Wired, and a few others, but excepting the NYT, there isn’t a one of them I read every day.

    Call me a Luddite but reading a paper paper (not that I do it much anymore) is an aesthetically superior experience to reading one online.

    I have three Twitter accounts, but I don’t think I spend more than thirty minutes a week average on all of them. I seldom turn on my Tweetdeck or Seesmic clients– far too distracting, even with columns and lists.

    For magazines I subscribe to the feeds of The Atlantic, Harper’s, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Time, et al, but I seldom read them unless pointed that way.

    This supposedly overwhelming torrent of information really is like a faucet– we can turn it off– because we really do have free will.

    No invisible hand stops me from jumping up every twenty minutes to dance around the old sea-cottage and pretend I’m Iggy Pop.

    De Botton’s writing is proof that we citizens of the crumbling Empire are not the masters of the paranoid style.

    Yet, wonderful to relate, he redeems himself in the end:

    “We require periods of fast in the life of our minds no less than in that of our bodies.”

    I’ve been on an information diet most of my life, long before Tim Ferriss started “life-hacking” (such an ugly word and an even uglier concept).

    Someone tell de Botton to read The Salmon of Doubt.

    This really is all about “contextual usability”.

  • Thanks for the compliment, Ben. I suppose a mostly solitary lifestyle on land and water has sharpened my powers of concentration and self-discipline– not that I’m a monk– far from it.

    I read every word of your piece in The American again, and have commented on it previously. I recommend it to everyone, and anyone who hasn’t read it should do so.

    I live pretty much on the edge of hipsterville, and I’d like to know where are all these super-technologically aware young people I keep reading about.

    Most of the ‘millenials’ I encounter don’t even know what RSS feeds are, and if the Feedburner stats in Google Reader are any indication, most of your readers are not subscribed to your RSS or Atom feeds.

    I keep evangelizing the virtues of the efficiency of RSS, but I don’t think I’ve made a convert yet, not even of my political blogger friend.

    I think a person who doesn’t have the leisure time I do (which is sporadic) would be better served to read just a few papers of record in depth than to trawl widely, but shallowly, in his personal news-stream.

    Besides, it’s mostly only those in academia and professional journalism who have the time to really immerse themselves in Dave Winer’s “river of news.”

    I don’t see how anyone who is dedicated to a full-time job outside those fields, and who makes time for a sex life, daily exercise, and relaxation could manage it, not even to mention managing a marriage and/or kids, if they have them.

    Finally, sorry to drag personalities into this, but I think it’s idiotic, and disreputable, of people like Robert Scoble to pretend they can possibly track thousands of feeds, so that “we don’t have to.”

  • “I find this willful ignorance unforgivable”

    I find it forgivable. I read Lewis as saying, “why in God’s name should I spend any time on this technology” — be it for evaluation or serious use. In other words, he’s putting the onus on Twitter to convince him it’s worth trying out.

  • The Atlantic links were great. (I only read the magazine, never look at their website: a time-sink if there ever was one.) I think it’s truly extraordinary that Mark Ambinder, one of the most powerful figures in political media in the US, does not read the New York Times or Washington Post anymore.

    Ben, what do you make of the fact that magazine reading is so important to these people? A long-form counter-balance to the short-form focus of web and social media content?

  • In the same way, for example, that I finally decided to start an author’s blog. I’d seen enough examples of its utility to be convinced that it would have a significant benefit.

    Here’s my take on these issues:

    When it comes to jobs that prioritize the ability to focus hard for long periods of time, such as writing, people should become entrenched with whatever set of tools works, and then set a really high bar for the changing of these tools or introduction of new tools.

    This is important because the testing, adopting, or tweaking of tools is antithetical to focusing hard, again and again, over time.

    For example, many of the great writers of our parent’s generation never shifted to word processors. They early on settled into something that worked, and this allowed them to put their attention where it matters — focusing hard, again and again.

    The argument was not: “do word processes offer advantages over writing long hand.” It was: “is there anything significantly holding me back about my current method?” If not, time to get back to work.

    I think Lewis is saying, “I’m going to have to hear a much more convincing argument for how Twitter is going to make me significantly better at what I do” before it earns *any* of my time.

  • Cal,

    So if people were satisfied driving by horse, they should just keep on keepin’ on and never try automobiles.

    This is a mindset that’s resistant to progress, change, and innovation. Not all change is good, but not all change is bad. You don’t know unless you’re open to it.

    Some things can’t be verbally explained in a way that accurately represents the experience. Sometimes, to understand an experience, you need to sample
    the experience. *Especially* with something new. (Psychedelic drugs have been around for awhile so while it’s still something that’s hard to explain, people have been trying for decades.)

    Because it costs so little to sample Twitter or other new technology, I find Lewis’s willful ignorance AND then negative judgment unforgivable.

  • Perhaps magazines represent a way for heavily-wired people to take a break from the computer and curl up with print…without the time and read-every-page commitment that a book entails.

    I sure as hell love print magazines still, and this may have something to do with it.

  • The BUSIEST people I know do not create personal blends of info, I agree. A print paper is still the most efficient way to get the headlines and news snippets. Not sure it will be this way for much longer, though.

    The Google Reader stats on my RSS are off because I have two feeds (old one and new one, same content) so it’s at least double what it says.

    I’m amazed at the number of people who tell me they just “check my site” for new content. Why not RSS?!

    At the least, people who have an RSS reader and use it usually are above-average interesting. It’s a good way to filter people.

  • You’re arguing against a crude straw man.

    My point is that for certain professions, the burden of proof is on the new technology, and this burden should be substantial.

    There’s no reason that Michael Lewis should be out there testing twitter just because it’s new and interesting. The argument that it’s easy or low cost to do so isn’t sufficient. There are a million things that could be potentially useful, and that are all easy or low cost to test — that doesn’t necessitate a test.

    Whether or not Lewis has enough foundation to attack Twitter…that’s a different subject.

  • Cal,

    To your last sentence, that IS the whole point of this post and my comments: he’s deciding to be ignorant AND attacking Twitter. That’s insane and you know it.

    You can’t lump Twitter in with the “million other things that could potentially be useful.” It is a business that’s affecting Lewis’s business — journalism. It’s a tool that many high profile writers and journalists use. This is not a nifty new can opener. This is a technology that’s of great relevance to his industry. No wonder, as Lewis preemptively brings it up in his post.

    For you, Facebook has not met the burden of proof for you to test. It is one of the two most important consumer technology companies of the last decade (along with Google); it is the second most popular web site in the world (after Google); hundreds of millions of people log into the site every single day; and yet, for you, it still hasn’t met your burden of proof for even a *test*.

  • You said: “To your last sentence, that IS the whole point of this post and my comments”

    Your post says that his “willful ignorance is unforgivable.” That’s what I’ve been reacting to. To me, there is nothing unforgivable for a writer like Lewis to remain ignorant of hot new technologies.

    You said: “For you, Facebook has not met the burden of proof for you to test…It is one of the two most important consumer technology companies of the last decade”

    Right. So if I was in the consumer technology business, this would be unforgivable. But I’m not. I do theoretical computer research and am attempting to write general non-fiction books. For the latter, 95% of what matters for a longterm career is writing really damn good books. For the former, 99.99% of what matters for a longterm is doing really damn smart research.

    In neither case is being on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, something that would make a large difference in the trajectory of my career. Which is why it hasn’t passed my burden of proof. Even if hundreds of millions of people use it every day.

    (Tens of millions of people watch the sitcom Two and Half Men each week, yet I assume you don’t feel compelled to watch it. NASCAR is one of the most important sports trends of the last 20 years, yet you don’t follow it. And so on…)

  • Your post says that his “willful ignorance is unforgivable.” That’s what I’ve been reacting to. To me, there is nothing unforgivable for a writer like Lewis to remain ignorant of hot new technologies.

    That sentence was in the context of the post. Look at the title of the post. I have no problem if Lewis wants to not learn about certain things. But he certainly shouldn’t bring them up anyway and issue an opinion. He should be absolutely neutral (not engage in the kind of sly, at-a-distance demeaning that is so popular for intellectuals to engage in about new technologies).

    In terms of your career, I wonder how you justify blogging, then. It doesn’t seem to advance either of those goals.

    Re: “For the latter, 95% of what matters for a longterm career is writing really damn good books.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the world were so meritocratic? I wonder how you square this attitude with your concurrent enthusiasm for Justine Musk’s blogging about building personal brands and building your audience. Those activities have nothing to do with “writing really damn good books.”

  • Also Cal, we all read and learn about things that are not specifically relevant to our work. You read articles in the newspaper about India, perhaps, because you want to understand how the world works.

    I find it astonishing that someone who’s curious about how the world works would choose to not spend even five minutes studying one of the most important social phenomenons of the decade.

  • Re: “not engage in the kind of sly, at-a-distance demeaning that is so popular for intellectuals to engage in about new technologies”

    Without sly, at-a-distance demeaning, being a public intellectual would be a lot less fun.

    Re: “In terms of your career, I wonder how you justify blogging, then”

    It took well over a year after publication of my most recent book before I decided I had seen enough evidence that it was worth committing to a blog. What pushed it over the threshold was: a) it would give me a venue to polish my writing at a much faster rate than print publication (thus accelerating my task at getting good) and b) it would help me better work through and practice ideas before committing them to a book proposal.

    (Both of these things it has done quite well! Some of my lack of enthusiasm with Twitter and Facebook is not that they can’t provide similar benefits, but that since I already have a blog they would provide minimal additional benefits.)

    Re: “I wonder how you square this attitude with your concurrent enthusiasm for Justine Musk’s blogging about building personal brands and building your audience.”

    My enthusiasm for Justine’s blog centers on her excellent articles about how to become really good at writing fiction. You’ll notice that every mention of her blog on my site is of one of these articles. In other words, I like Justine because she’s emphasizing the same message as me: write really damn good stuff, the rest is just details.

  • Here’s an honest question: what’s the advantage of testing versus observing?

    I think in many ways we’re actually pretty close on our view on these technologies — in that we’re both curious about their potential.

    The difference seems to be the expression of this curiosity. I gain a lot by observing how different people are using it, which saves me the physic baggage of having another “thing” to deal with. You would probably go a small step further and sign up.

    The difference here is maybe one of degrees.

  • Agreed. The question is how much you can "observe" in a closed social
    network from the outside. For example, one of the most interesting social
    phenomena of Facebook is the posting of private messages in a public sphere
    (on someone's "Wall"). I find this absolutely bizarre but it affects
    behavior. It's evidence of how un-seriously people take privacy.

    You can't see this from the outside.

    I'm sure there are other cases where observation is more valuable, perhaps
    equal in value to testing.

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