Do social media make us wiser or dumber? That depends on our choices
Is the world getting dumber? Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thinks so. In commenting on Twitter’s role in electing Donald Trump, Williams said people are isolated and narrow-minded in their consumption of news. He said the whole “media eco-system” is “making us dumber.”
Of course, stupidity has always been with us. Ignorance is the birthright of every generation. But Twitter has a unique role in fueling the comedy of errors – the “covfefe” – playing out across our screens.
This week, U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or someone using his account, apparently “liked” a porn video on Twitter. Cruz blamed “a staffer who accidentally hit the wrong button.”
This makes you wonder about security issues and the risk of hacks. It also reminds us that porn is just a click away: at work, at school, or in the statehouse. If Ted Cruz can stumble upon it, so can any kid with a smart phone.
Twitter is responsible for other mayhem, especially when it is used as a vehicle for public policy. President Trump’s confusing recent tweets about DACA have kept people guessing. He has proclaimed unvetted policies via Twitter, such as the ban on transgender persons in the military. And he continues to use Twitter to launch ad hominem invective at “crooked Hillary,” “the fake news” and other enemies.
IT IS WE, THE PEOPLE, WHO ALLOW OURSELVES TO SUCCUMB TO THE TEMPTATIONS OF STUPIDITY.
But the technology is not to blame. A tool is not responsible for malice or error. The Internet was not designed specifically for pornography. And Twitter was not intended as a platform for policy statements. The great dumbing down is not the medium’s fault – it is ours.
The social media ecosystem does provide a temptation for rudeness, crudeness and lewdness. But it is our eyes that move fast across our screens. It is the human user who swipes and pokes, looking for stimulation.
The speed of the medium favors the salacious and obscene. Click-bait preys upon short attention spans. It does not reward subtlety or complexity.
The American attention span is shrinking along with our vocabulary and our sense of privacy. But it is we, the people, who allow ourselves to succumb to the temptations of stupidity.
Information swirls, unfiltered and raw, simple and direct. This is a great democratizing shift. Now the politicians and pornographers can go directly to the people. The Internet knows what you like and it will deliver it to your inbox.
But important things – public policy and sexual relationships – are complicated. Relationships and ideas need time and privacy. A policy is more than the flick of a thumb. Love is more than clicking the “like” button.
Understanding and intelligence are cultivated in quiet solitude. Wisdom grows slowly through a process of exploration and revision.
Our ever-present screens prevent us from finding privacy and silence. This makes us impatient and cranky. Courtesy and eloquence are rare. Civility is a quaint relic of a slower time. And compassion? Well, there is no button for that in the comments section.
We also lack guides and mentors. Experts have been demoted. Editorial expertise is replaced by robots and algorithms.
“Power to the people” is the slogan of the social media revolution. But who is to guide us or teach us how to interpret the information we circulate?
SO ARE WE WISER OR DUMBER?
THAT DEPENDS ON WHAT WE CHOOSE TO DO WITH OUR LIBERTY AND OUR TECHNOLOGY.
Plato feared democracy because it puts the mob in charge – the dumb, vicious and reactionary mob. He warned that the mob easily succumbs to false prophets and demagogues who flatter our baser instincts. I’m sure he would be appalled by the Twitter revolution.
Democracy is dangerous. But it is also precious. The freedom to Tweet is a modern invention. Long centuries of war and turmoil have secured our right to forward outrageous images on our tiny screens.
So are we wiser or dumber? That depends on what we choose to do with our liberty and our technology.
Social media creates an opportunity for better choices. We really do have the world at our fingertips. We can use this incredible resource and our liberty to build a better world.
We can choose to be civil, eloquent, and compassionate. We can educate rather than denigrate. Instead of accepting stupidity, we can strive for wisdom. The first step is to stop blaming the medium, while taking a look in the mirror.