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Why I'm not atwitter about Twitter
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Forsyth County News
The world seems to be enthralled with the latest technological communications phenomenon sweeping the globe — Twitter, the fast way to communicate in 140 characters or less. The sentence you have just read contains more characters than permitted in a “Tweet.” Not much content, but it is quick and easy.

It’s already everywhere and growing at a phenomenal rate. For example, some pundits attribute much of the current unrest in Iran to communications taking place through Twitter. Individuals set up networks of “followers” who then can be kept apprised, simultaneously and in real time, of anything you want to tell them — news, feelings, even what you have eaten or when you last sneezed. All it takes is a computer, a cell phone or some other mobile device. Some celebrities already have follower lists in the millions.

The good news is that Twitter increases communications, quickly and without geographical limitations. But too much communication can overwhelm and can easily be counterproductive. And of course, the value of any communication is a function of both the subject and “accuracy.”

There was a time when I was enamored with new technology. My focus was on the new capabilities it would add to our lives. However, as technology has progressed, many of the social elements in our world have regressed.

Let’s look at some of the questions that associate, at least in my mind, with a technology like Twitter.

First there is language. The trend to make “short cuts” started to accelerate with text messaging. Now, the 140 character limit may lead not only to abbreviations that are unintelligible to the uninitiated, but to sentences like: “B4 2 long I 4C an Nd 2 English as cre8ed.”

Language skills have been under attack for many decades. Twitter is likely to accelerate the decline, although it is also likely to contribute to the adoption of more uniform worldwide communications patterns.

The celebrity focus is another concern. Why are we, particularly young people, so enchanted with celebrity status? It would seem to provide an escape from the real world into fantasy, replacing knowledge and interest in history, philosophy, science, mathematics and world events. Will this result in a decline in our ability to deal with the real challenges offered by the world around us? I’m concerned about the amount of time devoted to trivia. But of course, that is my definition.

Twitter is based upon “followers.” People who tend to network together are likely to share similar interests or views. To the extent time and interaction exclude stimuli from other sources, participants views may tend to narrow.

A recent Stanford University study showed that increased social networking ties, for executives, tended to “strengthen the illusion of consensus, even when none existed.”

At one time in my career I was responsible for strategic planning for a major corporation. When asked how to make the firm more responsive to its customers, my semi-facetious response was “abolish the executive dining room.” Everyone who ate there shared a common view of the marketplace, a view that seemed to be moving away from reality.

The dining room metaphor was another way of saying, “Get out and listen to others, rather than share and reinforce a limited perspective.”

They didn’t, and today the company is but a shadow of what it was several decades ago. With the political and social spectrums sharply divided, a large number of brief interchanges among people who think alike, or are looking for the same thing, may harden viewpoints and increase gaps, rather than bring people together to build more homogenous, flexible and tolerant environments.

Another concern relates to what I would call “technology hopping.” As soon as a new technology is announced, before the old technologies have been even close to perfected, we’re off and running. It takes years to get the bugs out and get costs down. But today we seem to skim from the top of one technology wave to the next.

It may not seem like much of a problem now, but think of the headache it will give future historians and archeologists as they try to recreate what took place in this century, with records that no longer exist (or without devices that can read the digital media that still remain). We may be erasing our past as it unfolds.

Finally, and this is broader than just Twitter, our economy has moved away from producing goods to a level of more abstract products.

For a while, we had a clear competitive advantage. That has eroded, as countries like India and China have acquired skills to compete. But they are also producing the everyday necessities of life — products which we have abandoned to them. Perhaps the results can be most dramatically seen when we look at a period of recession.

Many basic needs are no longer made here. So it is necessary to purchase them from abroad. Fortunately, we’re still strong in agriculture, so food is not a problem. But almost everything else is, and the enormous trade-off between manufactured products and the latest fads in communications may not be a healthy one for the work force or for society as a whole.

I am not suggesting that we abandon our obsession with new technology. I wish I knew of a way to slow it down a bit. But we may need to spend more time thinking about the implications for society. We are very good at identifying and dealing with the implications of a major discrete event — a war, for instance. We are much less able regarding things that sneak up on us incrementally, even if they move at a rapid pace. It’s like eating; what you eat today has little impact on your overall weight, but adding tomorrow’s and the next day’s meals can have major repercussions.

We need more universities and think tanks studying the impact on society, not only of technology, but of communications media. Clearly there are many plusses associated with enhancing the speed and frequency of communications, but unless we understand all the implications, and take steps to offset the negatives, the sum of these incremental changes and our enchantment with technology may lead to a state that is substantially less than the ideal.

Dr. Melvyn Copen’s column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.