The Twitter Trap, The Facebook Feint, And The Cell-Phone Cover.

There’s not much that I’d agree with NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller on, but his latest column, The Twitter Trap has a lot of truth in it.

Joshua Foer’s engrossing best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls one colossal example of what we trade for progress. 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.

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My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

…Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray 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.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

…The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet – complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy – are things that matter.

I’m someone who believes that we’re far too complacent about the rapid technological changes that are taking place in our society. We love Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, calculators, computers, Kindles, cell phones and all the other nifty new pieces of hardware we can get our hands on. Almost every person reading this post could list the advantages of those technological advances. That’s why they’re advances. That’s why they’ve been adopted so quickly.

However, there are significant downsides to all these new technologies and the downsides are “significant” because they’re changing how we think and how we interact with each other. People have much shorter attention spans than they had in the past. They spend much more time interacting with other human beings online and much less interacting with them in the real world. The populace is cruder and ruder because the anonymity of the Internet inevitably leads to more boorish behavior. Ironically, people are also much more comfortable with violations of their privacy because it happens so regularly on the Internet (See pretty much everything Google does, for example.)

Change is not always for the better and progress is only a positive if you’re going in the right direction. That’s why, unless we take steps to minimize these negatives, our society could face far-reaching, unpredictable consequences as a result of our inaction.

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