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Are 140 Characters Enough?

The disconnection, distractedness, triviality, and loneliness that are increasingly becoming a part of a hyper-technified age has been a source of interest (and concern) for me for a while now.  Increasingly, our lives are lived online. Facebook and Twitter (or the blogosphere!) are substituted for the cafe and the living room.  Status updates and text messages take the place of conversation.  There are certainly many good things about the brave new communication world we have created, but there are costs as well.

A few days ago, Tyler posted a wonderfully insightful (and sobering) reflection called “Letters to Abid” which probes some of the issues and anxieties around our use of technology and they ways in which it shapes our experience of being human.  Here are a few of the more memorable and thought-provoking passages:

You share the same fear as I. Being forgotten by the world because you can no longer be reached by text on a screen. You say to me, “people don’t’ think I exist once they lose the ability to text me.” I have no reply for you because you are right. I want to believe that I will remember your existence but wonder if I will. Am I so indoctrinated in constant communication that as much as I may try, thoughts of you will still disappear among status updates? We are constantly connected, that much is true. But, are 140 characters enough? Are we so afraid of each other, so afraid of ourselves, that anything more will reveal some unspeakable truths? Maybe those small texts boxes that say so little also say so much. Maybe by choosing to know so little about so many that we fail to know a lot about a few…

My face becomes a screen telling lies that hides an indifferent mind. Kilometers of electrical lines separate us even when we are standing beside each other. Experience is never for the sake of experience. It is just another album on another page. Another lie…. Just another text box screaming for an entry, screaming to give the photograph the life it so desperately pains for.

How can a justification of a person’s existence be sent with such few letters? Will my life be summed by a simple text or update? My tombstone will declare an expired username and out-of-service phone number. Hopefully someone will take a photograph of it and tag me in it.

The full post is well worth a read.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. JC #

    The question that is raised in my mind is “enough for what.”. In certain contexts yes and others no. I use Twitter to follow some journalists and artists whose 140 characters works well enought to alert me of news or projects I maybe interested in. Facebook is nice for keeping up old contacts that I don’t really have the ability to keep up with otherwise. I like following blogs on different subjects because having places to discuss religion, politics and music has several advantages. One being that most people do not have the appetite for discussing these topics as much as I do. Humans have a finite amount of time for taking in information and communicating but I don’t think it is an either/or problem as suggested by the above post seems to suggest.

    February 3, 2010
    • JC, I completely agree with you that it is not an either/or problem. I use them as tools as much or more than the next person and find them useful. But, I also catch myself or observe others disappearing into this ‘information’ world. What I was addressing is whether 140 character was enough to keep my humanness, does a reliance on all these tools start to transform the type of being I am? Of course it differs with every person. But, a common observation of my cohort (early twenties) and younger is there is some serious problems (in my opinion) surfacing with such a dependency on instantly quick yet short information.

      February 3, 2010
      • jc #

        A dependency on quick and short blurbs might point to a problem. That’s why when the question posed “is 140 characters enough” the response of “enough for what” points to a need for context to answer the question. I am not a determinist who believes that because a certain technology or trend exists in society that this will result in people indulging in certain behaviors that I find distasteful. Neither am I an Luddite who believes technology is inherently evil or causes us harm. It is possible that twitter just makes one person’s shallow character more visible to the rest of us if it is relied on heavily. It is odd to assume that before twitter existed these young twenty year olds would have lived a much deeper life exploring each others inner souls in coffee shops and living rooms.

        February 4, 2010
      • Clearly I’m not suggesting that prior to the advent of Twitter every twenty-something was perpetually lost in deep and contemplative discussions about “each other’s inner souls.” I think you’re right, the question “enough for what?” is a hugely important question to ask (and answer).

        Having said that, I do think that the technological and social networking options currently available to us can encourage shallow and narcissistic tendencies that might not have had the same opportunity for expression previously. Of course there have always been shallow, lonely, self-obsessed people or people with these tendencies. I think it’s at least worth considering that these traits might be given a boost of legitimacy or social approval in the Facebook/Twitter era.

        February 4, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Humanity seems prone to alienation – from God, from others, from nature – I think especially from nature. If we were not alienated from nature, I don’t think we would use electronic devices at all.

    Oddly, perhaps, we fear machines – not just the electronic ones, but especially the electronic ones.

    A lot of people seem to believe that the accelerator problem with Toyotas is really an electronic problem. Maybe it is years of bad experience with Microsoft products that makes us suspect electronics, or may it is just that we fear computers more than floor mats and accelerator pedals.

    I think we regret our alienation from nature and we worry that our machines, especially our electronic ones, will perfect that alienation – machines and biochemistry, that is.

    As for others, it is so easy to electronically delete unwanted friends – such a great tool: electronics.

    And as for God, machines took his place long ago. Such redemption they provide.

    February 3, 2010
  3. I like the concern’s that you raise and the quote, particularly the ending: “My tombstone will declare an expired username and out-of-service phone number. Hopefully someone will take a photograph of it and tag me in it.” (fantastic)

    But in the same voice I do like the idea behind these technologies if anything they give me a easy access to world news, my twitter is set to BBC, CBC, CNN and RT and every-time there is a news update I simply read what is happening in the world and if want more in depth read, I click on the status which takes me to the main article on their website. My twitter is also set to Hockey and Soccer News so I see all the trades, news, scores quickly with out searching websites. (perhaps the sports part could be reasoned as a waste of time, or border line obsession) But I do submit when I read a status about some one “walking to school/mall/toilet, or standing in line…” I tend to roll my eyes.

    So I am a bit torn between the usefulness and uselessness of these networks and I do think these technologies have contributed to an overwhelming idea of narcissism, I am not sure what the research if any has been done, but it does seem like there are so many working on their computers and accomplishing so little. Of course not me though as I am blogging this ever important self-indulgent thought for you! 🙂

    February 4, 2010
    • Yeah, it’s a fine line between critically evaluating our use of these things while at the same time embracing the legitimate benefits they offer. I don’t claim to have figured out the balance. I spend a lot of time online interacting with the ideas of others, whether on this blog or elsewhere. I’m obviously not prepared to just abandon technology. There’s certainly a sense in which I am personally indicted here as well—I am often the one spending hours one end in front of the computer and accomplishing little! Maybe one of the reason Tyler’s post resonated with me was because I saw a bit of myself in there…

      February 4, 2010
      • yup I heard that in your post, and it resonates with me as well.

        February 4, 2010

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