New York Times Editor Doesn’t Understand The Modern World

New York Times Editor Doesn’t Understand The Modern World

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, thinks modern communication technologies make you stupid, destroy your relationships and even your soul. He is wrong.

The crux of Keller’s argument lies in a single paragraph:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of grey matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

Keller makes the same mistake in dismissing Twitter and Facebook and, well, modernity, that critics ten to twelve years ago made in dismissing blogging: he confuses medium with message. Twitter, and any technology, is what you make of it. If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life.

Instead he focuses on the short form, and its rapid fire nature. He bemoans what it does to memory and genuine interaction. His criticism echoes what previous generations said about television, about newspapers about pamphlets and even about the written word itself. In fact, it’s strikingly similar to the argument Socrates leveled against writing (which presumably Keller is in favour of):

[F] or [the use of letters]will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Yes! You are right, Bill Keller. Technology will change the way we think and interact. Our brains will process information differently and we will interact with each other differently thanks to the tools we use, be they databases, communications mediums, or language itself. But Keller seems to mistake the changing nature of the way our brains work to process information and communicate with us having lost something as a society. That’s just not true.

If we lose the art of penmanship, but gain a greater ability to clearly communicate what is ultimately lost? If we become unable to recognise simple patterns in data with our eyes because we have built machines that can see complex ones our brains could not process in many lifetimes, are we truly intellectually bereft for it?

Bill Keller seems to think so. He cites the loss of our collective ability to memorize vast quantities of information as proof of a greater cognitive loss.

“Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak – the ability to recite entire books – were not unheard of.

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” But Foer’s book reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.”

Yeah. See. The thing is not that we’re dumber, or that our cognitive advance has slowed or reversed. It’s that we need different mental abilities to process information and the modern world.

We don’t simply use new technologies, we become immersed in them. We live in an era of information assault. Data is everywhere. Ads come at us from all sides. Email pours into our boxes. The Web, and television, and radio and, yes, fucking newspapers spew information at us like, well, like newspapers once spewed from printing presses before they began drifting into irrelevance.

Memorisation was once a tool for preserving information. But today the more important skill is the ability to process and filter it. To quickly decide what needs to be analysed and responded to, and what ought to be ignored. That’s not a cognitive loss, it’s an evolutionary advancement.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible to be versed in all the world’s ideas. Men like Benjamen Franklin were able to master the accumulated knowledge we as humans had built up over the whole of our history. That’s impossible now! Could you even do that with the news that came out last week?

The era of The Great Man, if it ever existed, is past. We are all smaller pieces of the pie now. Our achievements tend less towards great leaps than incremental change. And yet our technology is advancing at a much greater rate than ever before due to these incremental advances of a great many than it ever did by the actions of a few learned white men of letters. We are becoming specialists. That doesn’t make us dumb.

Similarly, just as we encounter much more data each day, we also encounter many more people. Think back 20 years ago. How many people did you interact with in a 24 hour period? Almost certainly, all of your interactions were in person or via the telephone. The majority required speech. A small subset likely took place via the written word. In technologically advanced societies, that trend has reversed itself.

If you are like me, most of your daily interactions with other people take place electronically. You probably interact with a greater number of distinct individuals via emails, tweets, Facebook updates, chats, and text message than you do verbally or in person. (Unless you have a job that requires a great deal of public interaction like, say, a sales clerk at a busy department store.)

Again, you need to be able to process those relationships quickly and efficiently. It’s a basic tool for modern life. Yet that does not mean that your interactions in those mediums are any less genuine, or less soulful, even if they take place more rapidly.

Though Keller may not have done so himself, for those younger than him I think the experience of making a friend online who later becomes a friend in person is relatively commonplace. You can put the word friends inside of quotation marks all you want to denigrate those relationships, but the fact is that tools like Facebook, and Twitter, and email and the Web serve not simply as communication aids, but as the connective tissue of modern relationships.

Much of Keller’s evidence relies on a lone experience, when he sent a message to Twitter stating “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller did not ask any important questions, or engage with the other people using Twitter to communicate. He just rolled up and trolled. He went into a venue where people have elected to be, and told everyone that their presence there makes them stupid. He then laments that he did not receive more positive responses from within that forum itself.

LOL! It’s funny because it’s so fucking facile.

Calling me stupid isn’t generally the best way to get a nuanced, reasoned response out of me, Bill. To prove this point, I have broken out my notecards, and composed an old-fashioned letter to you which I am sending in the old-fashioned mail. I eagerly await your handwritten response.