As I write this, I am 37,000 feet over Colorado. I am starting a column, catching up on Sonoma County news, exchanging e-mails, monitoring Twitter and RSS feeds, checking with friends on Facebook and listening to music. Later, I may upload photos, buy a new application for my iPhone and post to my blog.
In an airplane half-way between San Francisco and New York, I think: Wow, this is so cool.
And a voice inside my head says: Are you bloody crazy? Is there no down time from technology?
Conflicted, I instant-message Tech Guy.
“Hey, I’m online at 37,000 feet. I don’t know whether this is wonderful or horrible.”
“I think I’m going to write a column that asks whether we are too connected.”
“What the heck does that mean?”
“Look, shouldn’t we ask if the Web is taking time that should be used to talk with friends, take a walk or read a book?”
“OH, LORD! THE WORLD IS CHANGING! SOMEONE GET ME A HANDKERCHIEF! ”
Here I should explain that Tech Guy and I enjoy giving each other grief. Andrew, my son, is an Internet journalist, and I’m Newspaper Guy – which makes me the designated stand-in for a generation that thinks time should have stopped after fax machines and push-button phones.
“You think the kids in Iran are currently too connected?” He asks. “Twitter and Facebook are fueling a revolution.”
He adds, “Write about that. None of this hand-wringing B.S.”
Ignoring the irony, I Google the question: “Can technology take over our lives?”
In 0.46 second, I get 52 million hits.
Take that, Tech Guy.
Last week the death of pop star Michael Jackson demonstrated again the astonishing connectivity of our new world. Via Twitter and blogs, tens of millions of people believed Jackson was dead before any news organization could provide confirmation. The Web was clogged with fans, joined in a worldwide community of the curious and the mournful.
The Los Angeles Times later reported that Jackson’s death also generated a spate of Internet stories about the deaths of celebrities who were not dead, including the actors George Clooney, Harrison Ford and Jeff Goldblum.
I can hear some saying: Well, there you go. There’s the danger.
Yes, but it doesn’t matter. The genie is out of the bottle.
Technology will power campaigns for democratic reform in repressive countries such as China and Iran. It will break the major media organizations’ stranglehold on news and entertainment. It will bring together countless communities of people who have never met but who share the same curiosity or the same passion.
And it will provide an infinite number of opportunities to spread information that will be variously crass, trivial, cruel, obscene, wrong and mendacious.
Sorry. You’ll just have to get used to it.
Lately, I’ve been fooling around with Twitter, which is just as random as the rest of the Internet – only shorter, blogs of 140 characters or less.
Twitter is bulletins from major news organizations. It’s friends recounting that they are eating hamburgers for dinner. It’s people sharing links to interesting stories or photos. It’s experts – some real, some self-proclaimed – spouting off. It’s companies selling their wares. It’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing that he just vetoed a budget bill. It’s Santa Rosa cyclist Levi Leipheimer reporting from the Tour de France.
And it’s movie star Ashton Kutcher recounting what he is doing at this very moment. You probably have to be a fan to get excited when he writes, “shooting green screen all day. It’s the weirdest thing we do.”
Kutcher, btw, was the first Twitterer to have one million followers.
There is no way to generalize about all this – the useful and the trivial, the profound and the banal, the provocative and the boring. It’s all there.
Back on the airplane, Tech Guy instant-messages the link to the Atlantic magazine commentary in which the New York Times media critic David Carr asks: “Is Google making us stupid?”
Carr recounts that he and friends now struggle to read books and longer articles. “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing.”
I know the feeling. So much information, so little time.
Thirty-seven thousand feet over Colorado, I like being able to work and bounce around the Web, but I also worry that I can’t make out the difference between what is important and what isn’t. There are those moments when I say to myself: What the hell are you doing wasting your time reading this?
Fifty years ago, social scientists warned that humankind would be overcome by what was called “the vast wasteland” of television (and that was when there were four channels, not 400).
If our species couldn’t handle television, how will we manage the avalanche of information that now comes our way every minute of every day?
Correction: The Atlantic magazine commentary was written by author Nicholas Carr, not New York Times media critic David Carr.