Steven Pinker has a new op-ed in the New York Times where, ever the gallant hero of relativism in the way that most linguists and social scientists are, he defends new forms of mass and social media from their loudest detractors. His two salient examples are Powerpoint and Twitter. While the former has been a fixture of academic or professional communication for well over a decade, the latter is a relative newcomer and currently receives the same mix of pointed dislike and frenzied exuberance usually reserved for the novel.

Let it not be said that I am discomfited or alarmed by new forms of media; that I’m posting this to a blog after finding the article on Facebook, cross-posted from Twitter itself, may say something about my attitude toward the new and the popular. At the same time, I am extraordinarily distrustful of smiling cretins who like to whitewash the tendency of pop-culture to both reflect and encourage those things about ourselves which are ultimately damaging—the execrable Everything Bad is Good For You is a good example of just how facile such attempts can be.

A Rejection of Summaries

Pinker addresses the metonymized arguments that Powerpoint and Twitter (and media of that nature) stultify our discourse and represent an insidious verbal rot that (ostensibly) takes perfectly intellectual people and stupefies them into a torpid hulk. One gets the feeling that his implied opponents view humanity as a sort of real-life Flowers for Algernon, arising out of savagery by the power of the printed word and the reward of intellectual acumen; only to sink slowly and inexorably into monosyllables and dismayed puzzlement. Of course, these two forms of media merely represent the logical evolution of their predecessors—namely, notecards and text messages1, respectively. In fact, though I have some sympathy for those linguistic and academic conservatives who are weeping and rending their garments over the Titanic (read: majestic, yet ill-fated) that is modern cultural intelligence, I am nonetheless inclined to agree with Pinker that panic is undue. But here’s his segue:

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.

Immediately, Pinker makes what I feel is a completely unfair comparison. Comic books may be, in many cases, rather paltry intellectual fare2 if in no other regard than exercising verbal skills, but their real controversy was in their subject matter. As David Hadju notes in his excellent The Ten-Cent Plague, comics’ ostensible lack of intellectual depth paled in comparison to their subject matter, which included sex, violence, rebellion, drugs, more violence, and all the other neat things that developing kids like to consume. The glorification of these things, it was said, was corrosive to moral fibre, and would invariably lead to a generation of deviants, criminals, and probably Communists, too. A virtually identical argument is made against video games (notably modern ones such as the notorious Grand Theft Auto series), occasionally bolstered by studies which show some correlation between violent video games and aggressive behavior immediately after playing.

The argument against new forms of social media are not the hysterical bleatings—”Won’t somebody please think of the children?“—of moral decay, but rather the fear that the diminishing requirements for dialogue are lowering the intellectual bar. The latter, even if you don’t agree, is a rather more plaintive and reasonable argument; no, Twitter will not turn today’s children into slavering nitwits, but it does draw converts from other sorts of media that may have once asked its users to expound upon something, rather than simply abbreviate it. I started this blog in 2004, and though I make no particular case for the quality of its entries, one of the reasons I have continued to update it long after blogs passed their peak is that it forces me to explain, transcribe whole series of thought into words, and construct something potentially readable by others. When I started, the same sorts of people who now use Twitter all gamboled around Xanga and Blogspot and tried their hand—however unsuccessfully—at extended forms of communication.

A Confusion of Tongues

Of course, there’s the argument to be made that Twitter itself isn’t really even a form of dialogue so much as an electronic series of handshakes and nodding of heads; I mentioned that I first learned of Pinker’s article via Facebook, and ultimately Twitter, and in that sense these media acted as little more than conduits in order to reach the meatier medium of the website article—a medium not capped at 140 characters. As a filter or aggregation of information, Twitter and its ilk succeed as well as can be expected; I frequent the software-oriented DZone for much the same reason. Perhaps Pinker is aware of a collective sigh of woe regarding the use of social media as a way to share information external to these services, but the chorus of criticism of which I am aware has little to do with that and more to do with diminishing the faculties of communication by sheer atrophy.

It can’t be said that using social media is somehow poisonous to these faculties; I know of innumerable people who manage to participate in such terse or thin media and manage to retain their verbal skills without any apparent effort. But it would be sheer folly to assume that our preferred or popular modes of discourse have no peripheral effect on how we act otherwise. But Pinker seems to think so:

The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

He seems to obliquely reference his prior examples of comics and video games, dismissing the common assumption that, e.g., watching violent media necessarily make one a violent person. The topical parallel suggests that similarly, reading 140-character tweets does not truncate one’s internal monologues at 140 characters as well. But might communicating in 140-character tweets have such an effect? I can’t say one way or the other, but I can say with relatively authority that the longer I go between writing entries on my blog, the more difficult it is to resume doing so. As with most tasks both physical and mental, practice is the key to ongoing success; the doomsday scenario implied by these media’s harshest critics is a motley group of teens whose communicative and contemplative faculties are entirely destroyed by the diminishing trend of online dialogue. At the same time Pinker denies this absorptive effect, he also stresses the need to remove oneself from said media—”develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life”—which would seem to indicate that he believes even the lovely and novel can ultimately be detrimental if they demand too much of our time and attention. A great many users of such media—one might even say the vast majority—manage a separation of concerns; what worries the worriers, of course, is the remaining portion for whom these media have the described deleterious effect: I have known classmates who, because they relied on Powerpoints, did not in four years of university develop even a passable acuity for speaking in front of groups.

A Disparity of Objects

Speaking of universities:

It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

With this single paragraph, it seems as though Pinker has not understood at all the very criticisms he has been deflecting. I would of course agree that institutions of higher education, along with the continued exercise of the intellect, are necessary for said “deep reflection”. Of course, the “analysis, criticism, and debate” to which he refers are the very items on the cultural chopping block—Twitter, for all its many merits, does not have the proper facilities for an organized or reasoned conversation, and while perhaps we’d like to think of each tweet as a doorway to something more interesting, we all know that a great many are the more sickly and pallid tabloid variety3.

Perhaps the crux of my disagreement comes down to how Pinker sees the very nature of social media: “efficient access to information on the Internet” and “Facebook” or “Twitter” are synonymous only in the most crudely general of ways. No one expects that without glib and carefree media of this sort we’d all turn into lexicographers and physicists with tweed jackets, but neither is it fair to say that media which is a product of our own glib and voyeuristic tendencies, and which conducts itself as such, is equivalent to real collaborative effort or collected knowledge: in other words, Twitter may point you to a Wikipedia entry, but in that case only the Wikipedia entry itself constitutes any real form of information aside from (maybe) the tweeter’s succinct binary opinion. As a method of collating or evaluating full-text information, therefore, social media has some function, but at the cost of indulging those of our impulses which aren’t interested in the “constant upkeep” of our contemplative faculties.

In other words, I’m not sure what idealized technologies Pinker has been looking at, but those I’m aware of aren’t nearly so pure. The arguments he cites against Twitter and Powerpoint remain largely unanswered, neatly sidestepped in favor of defending some utopian vision of electronic media in general as a necessary filter which allows us to comfortably engage the widening gyre of global information—not to mention a glib, hapless shrug at the notion that radically changing primary means of communication will somehow have an effect on individuals and culture as a whole. It is oddly delinquent of Pinker, from whom I’ve come to expect so much better.

  1. It could be said that text messaging is not so much a predecessor of Twitter as it is a sibling, but certainly SMS represents a spiritual predecessor if nothing else.[]
  2. There are notable exceptions to this, of course—e.g. Moore’s Watchmen[]
  3. An example from their front page: jobrosupdates_n When Nick met Miley he extend the hand to shake her hand, she refused and told him “I don’t shake hands, I give hugs” []
§5679 · June 11, 2010 · Tags: , , , ·

1 Comment to “Steven Pinker defends Twitter, but who’s attacking it?”

  1. Brady says:

    With your final, overarching assessment- that Pinker is more dismissive of concerns over social media than he should be- I am in agreement. However, there are some points in his article that I may have understood differently than you did.

    1. Pinker is not attacking a Straw Man- here’s a recent NY Times article titled “We Have Meet the Enemy, and He is Powerpoint” (link), as well as one of many discussing the negative impact of Twitter (link).

    2. When he mentions the concerns over comic books, he is aware that the concern was over social attitudes and not a decrease in intelligence (“When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s”). His argument is that in all the cases he mention, people were concerned that a new form of media was going to screw up civilization, despite no evidence (or even contradictory evidence) that such a thing was happening.

    3. I don’t think this op-ed set out to disprove the claims against Twitter/Powerpoint/etc.- rather, he’s pointing out that the “recent” panic over their possible effect is based partly on some fundamentally flawed assumptions- the “you are what you eat” argument, the idea that constant distractions were just introduced to us by these technologies, or that they and only they are changing our brains. I don’t think it was meant to be a thorough debunking, but rather, an attempt to stop this most recent notion from becoming an unexamined epidemic.

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