Apr

29

2013

Justin Taylor|9:49 am CT

The Decline of Western Civilization, 140 Characters at a Time

It’s worth reading this week’s Weekly Standard cover story by Matt LaBash, a biting but insightful lampooning of the culture behind Twitter and what goes on at conferences like SXSW. Here is an excerpt:

If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m not a Twitter fan. In fact, I outright despise the inescapable microblogging service, which nudges its users to leave no thought unexpressed, except for the fully formed ones (there’s a 140-characters-per-tweet limit). I hate it not just because the Twidiocracy constantly insists I should love it, though that certainly helps. Being in the media profession (if “profession” isn’t overstating things), where everyone flocked en masse to the technology out of curiosity or insecurity or both, I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness. I hate the smugness of it, the way the techno-triumphalists make everyone who hasn’t joined the Borg feel like they’ve been banished to an unpopulated island, when in fact the numbers don’t support that notion. . . .

I hate the way Twitter transforms the written word into abbreviations and hieroglyphics, the staccato bursts of emptiness that occur when Twidiots who have no business writing for public consumption squeeze themselves into 140-character cement shoes. People used to write more intelligently than they speak. Now, a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet. . . .

I hate the way Twitter turns people into brand managers, their brands being themselves. It’s nearly impossible now to watch television news without an anchor imploring you to “follow me on Twitter,” even as you’re already following him on television. You couldn’t do this much following in the physical world without being slapped with a restraining order.

Though I’ve just catalogued much to hate about Twitter, there’s plenty more to hate about Twitter. I hate that Twitter makes the personal public. That conversations between two intimates that formerly transpired in person or by email become conversations between two intimates for the benefit of their followers. I’ve actually been to lunch with people who have tweeted throughout, unbeknownst to me. (The fact that they only looked up from their iPhone twice in two hours might’ve been a tipoff. Though that’s pretty much par for the course, even with untweeted lunches these days.) . . . .

A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets, Twitter causes Twidiots to ask one fundamental question at all times: “How am I doing?” That’s not a question most people can resist asking, even in their offline lives, but on Twitter, where tweeters are publicly judged by masses of acquaintances and strangers alike, the effect tends to be intensified. Even the most independent spirit becomes a needy member of the bleating herd. It’s the nerd incessantly repeating what the more popular kids say. It’s the pretty girl, compulsively seeking compliments.

As a friend of mine says, “It’s addictive and insidious. I see it even with smart people who ought to know better but can’t help themselves. They give wildly disproportionate weight to the opinions they read on Twitter, mostly because they’re always reading Twitter. Which fills them with anxiety, distorts their perceptions, and makes it almost impossible for them to take the long view on anything. Every crisis is huge, ominous, and growing. Every attack requires an immediate response.”

You can read the whole thing here. But permit me just one more quote, which has implications for how we as Christians think about ourselves and our technological culture:

Evan Fitzmaurice, an Austin-based lawyer and longtime friend who until recently was the Texas Film Commissioner, has attended many a SXSW. He tells me one night over dinner that while he’s wired to the hilt (“I’ve gotta connect to the Matrix”), he sees the downside of perpetual connectedness. “You’re truncating natural thought. Things don’t gestate anymore. It’s instantaneous, without the benefit of reflection. And everything’s said at volume 10. Nothing’s graduated anymore. It’s a clamor.” Though not religious himself, he says what I witness at SXSW would be recognized by any religious person. “They’re trying to supplant deliverance and redemption through religion with civil religion and technological redemption—the promise of a sublime life on a higher plane.”

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