At the risk of pissing off a lot of friends, I have become steadily more concerned about Facebook to the point where I am beginning to feel that coupled with instant messaging and certain aspects of the world wide web, Facebook is precipitating the end of civilization, not just as we know it – but period. That is extreme, I know. But, I can't shake the feeling.
Over Thanksgiving at a family affair, I watched a group of teens navigate their reality. They weren't just avidly using their portable devices – ranging from modest cell phones to large screen laptops. Rather, they were inseparable from those devices. They were constantly at them. And they didn't even have Ipads! Okay, big deal, you might say. But yes, I think it is.
The young people, and some of the elders as well, couldn't even watch TV and focus on it much less seriously converse about anything at all. They had to, instead, at the same time as watching TV, send and receive instant messages while periodically, almost convulsively, visiting and revisiting their Facebook pages.
One parent said it used to be that they felt like TV was antisocial compared to sitting around dinner and talking at length. Now they wished the group could even just watch TV as a group, without being enmeshed in self creating absolutely individualistic personal spaces defined by access to their mobile devices.
Indeed, I finally understood why various network TV shows now advertise their web sites, telling viewers to visit those while the show is still on, and thus, seemingly competing with themselves. Are they nuts? Of course not.
The answer is, they do it because contemporary kids multitask like that, whether they are invited to or not. The kids, and many adults too, can't not be doing a bunch of things – not so much literally at once, which is real multitasking – as one after another after another, back and forth, which is what I have come to call flitting. In this case this yields a little attention on TV and some on messages and Facebook and some on frequent forays to web sites – but no attention for everyone else in the vicinity, even, and no sustained attention for anything at all.
This is also why more and more TV shows and web sites, clutter things up with quick info bulletins, constantly flowing at the bottom. It is so the new audience of network aficionados can keep changing what they are doing, without literally, entirely, leaving the show. You can see it on talk shows, too, as the talking heads change topics as fast as they can. In fact, what many people find cluttering nowadays isn't so much clutter, as it is anything that threatens to require serious time.
The point is, and i am serious about this, attention span is plummeting toward zero.
We have been schooled already for some years by the habits of browsing on pages flitting among many choices often as quickly as possible. Now added to the mix is Facebook with its never ending flow of snippets of personal gossip and news, and of course, talking about snippets, we have Twitter. We can tweet – yikes, they aren't even embarrassed by naming the behavior incredibly accurately, we tweet, or we even follow an avalanche of other people's tweets. Are we birds? Thousands of years of intellectual development and struggle and now we can tweet, tweet, tweet – speedy and vacuous.
Kids now sit in school ensconced in their mobile devices – tweeting, messaging, and otherwise twitting about. One wonders, do the sons and daughters of the rich and professional do this all the time, too? If so, their brains are doomed to decline. But I bet not. I bet many are in private schools that keep a lid on it. I bet they go to clubs and homes which put a lid on it. But if not…and if maybe the poor don't do it for want of access, perhaps finally, a saving grace – the poor may inherit the earth due to alone not becoming bird brains. But, alas, inquiries evidence that no, the poor twit too.
Am I exaggerating? Sure – well, I hope so. But maybe I am not so sure of it.
We are told about a massive increase in communications. Okay, yes, I admit that – there is certainly more sending and receiving – more bits and bytes are transfering – but the content conveyed is declining even as the number of messages is climbing. The duration of each communication is approaching zero. Fast, faster, fastest. The content of each communication is approaching nil. Short, shorter, shortest. And here is the scariest part, the individual and thus also the collective brain is rewiring itself in accord.
Think about exercising to become good at some new function. I am medically entirely ignorant, but my intuitive impression is that one thing that happens, more or less, is that you become attuned in your muscles and expectations and habits to the new function. Maybe it is shooting foul shots on a basketball court or ice skating. Or perhaps it is some kind of mental calculating or playing a musical instrument or even listening to certain types of complex music,.
Or maybe, nowadays, the new function we master is literally doing any one thing after any other thing, after still another thing, after another. Thus the function that is mastered is being the fastest and most efficient possible switching of one's brief focus over and over.
In the former cases of learning a new skill, we know that we eventually get quite good at something, and we tend to want to keep doing it and we feel good doing it, and so on. It may even become a bit habitual. Given the opportunity to do our thing, we feel a pressure to seize that opportunity and to indeed do what we have become expert at.
In the latter case, however, where what you are becoming good at it is literally rapidly, efficiently and repeatedly switching what you are doing, then what you are getting good at is flitting. You become a good flitter. But in that case too, we might anticipate, you will start to want to flit, and to even need to flit, to manifest your new flitting talent. Who you now are is, well, in part a great flitter. It is almost like your muscles becoming attuned to shooting baskets or skating or whatever. Your brain becomes attuned to flitting. Experiments show that for this functionality your brain even reorients itself, rewires itself – a bit – to maximize your flitting capacity.
And here is the scary part – the rewiring to facilitate flitting has a by-product. You gain flitting ability, but you also lose inclination to and perhaps even ability to focus for more than a smidgen of time on any one thing. You become disinclined to appreciate activities that require you to pay close extended attention, much less activities that require you to think many connected thoughts over an extended time without repeatedly taking off on some other very brief path. So you start to want short, shorter, shortest. You start to want fast, faster, fastest. You keep moving your attention until your attention can't sit still. You are a flitter. And there goes civilization.
Maybe I am paranoid, but this is what I see happening. I can even feel it in myself at times, when using an Ipad, say, which is a marvelously designed and powerful instrument that, however, like most instruments, can be used for good, but also for not so good – including for flitting. Okay, again you may say, so what.
Well here is what.
The internet and even social networking can most certainly be tremendously beneficial tools for human and social enrichment. I can just hear people reading this and saying to me – or screaming at me – but MIchael, we use Facebook to send good left articles to people. It is a wonderful thing. We use it to organize demos. We use the web to read massive volumes. And so on.
Sure, these are good possibilities. And some people do mostly these things. But the good here is getting swamped – and that is much too weak a word for what is happening – by the bad.
The potential of the internet is getting hijacked. And we – the people using it and even the people using it for good – are,when we use the commercial and fundamentally deadening parts (taking benefits from them while also legitimating them and ignoring the need to build better alternatives) abetting the hijacking.
It is hard not to do it. If you are a teen and you don't tweet and you don't message and you don't Facebook, you are decoupled from your community. You have no time to build and contribute to and advocate for better networks and sites and practices – because you need to go back and check your Facebook page – and, in any event, you have come to think Facebook is perfect, or nearly so. After all, if it wasn't why would so many people be using it so much? This is now starting to occur even for adults. Age creep – up toward those of us staring at senility on one side, and at techno babble on the other side, wondering which is duller.
Who wants to unplug from everyone? So we choose to message and Facebook and tweet, and having chosen to do it, we laud it so we don't have to feel guilt about our choice, and slowly but surely, or even quickly but inexorably, we forget about books, even magazines, hell – even a TV show that requires real focus. Not while the cell phone is in reach.
Give me snippets or give me death!
And so everyone who might have built networked options that advance civilization is left without audience, pretty soon without motivation – and they join the stampede into mindlessness, too.
Indeed, even the left sites start to think, we have to mimic the big boys who are succeeding. We have to compete on their turf. Fast, faster, fastest. Short, shorter, shortest, as even left users start to gravitate to venues that can and will deliver the largest crowd doing the least with their minds – the snippet twitting venues.
I used to be concerned about video games. I still don't like that they have kids celebrating shooting and killing in a less and less playful and more and more violent and vindictive and even realistic fashion that increasingly acclimates the soul to murder. That's very bad. But I don't think video games begin to approach the Facebook, messaging, web flitting nexus of devolution of human prospects. That is even more serious. In fact, there is no competition on the horror meter. Facebook is starting to annihilate video gaming that requires long attention, I think.
People used to write long serious letters. Yes, the exchanges took a lot of time, but they had real artistry, real substance, real content. Then came email and it was fantastic – but the letters started to get much shorter, even as they got more frequent. Then came tweeting and messaging – soon to replace email as the main mode of communicating – and the messages became very nearly, and almost ubiquitously, meaningless. For that matter, people used to have conversations – another capacity that I am inclined to think is in serious free fall.
I am told that roughly one quarter of all internet use is viewing Facebook. Think about that. If we find a distorted distribution of income scarily rotten – just think about that distorted distribution of information focus. The internet carries very nearly all human information. You can take university courses – read nearly any book – follow discussions and articles, explore, learn about virtually anything – and yet, instead, we increasingly examine snippets.
And I haven't even bothered to mention the big brother aspect of Facebook being in the business of saving private, personal information about 500 million users to enhance the effectiveness of advertising – among other potential uses of the information.