I just finished reading Accelerando, with main themes including the pace of technology, generation gaps, and our ability to cope. When I put down the book and went online to catch up on news/email/etc. I discovered that there’s been another flare-up of discussions about Twitter, reflecting a slice of the same issue.
Twitter lets people broadcast small pieces of information about what they’re doing throughout the day. Some people love this, as exhibitionists and voyeurs. Some people think it’s asinine. There’s also a large group in the middle, using it because it’s kind of fun, and it fills one of the gaps created by modern computer-driven lifestyles: a lack of in-person contact with people throughout the day.
I think we’re in the middle of a technological and cultural shift that’s both very alien and very familiar. If the 50s and nuclear families put us into small, isolated social bubbles, then email and IRC and the web and everything else are bringing us back the other way. (Sort of. But the caveat can wait for another post.)
Having this kind of always on contact with other people is noisy. It’s invasive. Modern computing allows it to happen at a much faster pace than we’re used to registering. But–when you grow up with it, you adapt. I spent every free waking hour possible from ages 15-21 immersed in an online social environment (a set of MOOs, less popular these days due to a lack of a graphical interface). It was addictive. It had a huge impact on what happened in my life during that time period, good and bad. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t have access to a laptop back then, so I had to take breaks when I left the house. Eventually I logged out because it didn’t feel healthy anymore.
I don’t usually talk about that, because it feels sort of embarrassing to admit you spent your teenage years online, but certain aspects are immensely useful in retrospect. Having overdone it at one point means I know how much isolation I need to do mentally intensive work, and gives me a sense of how many streams of information I can process before I’m overloaded.
And this is also why I think all of the debate over Twitter is really silly. People are confusing the medium with the event. What’s happening is that we’re learning to negotiate always-on connectivity. Some people are going to need more distance than others. Some are going to opt-out completely. But I think people who grow up with this sort of thing just take it for granted. They still struggle with information overload and needing personal space and so on, but I suspect that the actual services that provide all of these things are going to seem irrelevant except in terms of “does this give me the kind of connectivity that I need?”
I don’t play futurist often, because it’s too easy to lose the larger context. If Twitter is a small slice of the pace of technology and how we cope, that issue is an even smaller piece of modern life, even in my own geographic community. I like to have my feet on the ground most of the time.