This Just In

The boffins at the University of California have just alerted us that use of Twitter may imperil our moral faculties. Apparently the problem is that no sooner has the popular messaging service delivered to us a 140-character synopsis of some calamity than another “tweet” comes along, driving the old one from our consciousness before we “can fully digest the anguish and suffering.”

In other words, our Twitter stream might look like this:

Tiffany: OMG the new Jonas Bros vid is so freakin awesome (3:17 p.m.)

CAmanpour: Massive flooding, suicide bombings, Ebola outbreak complicate asteroid-impact relief efforts in Darfur (3:19 p.m.)

Jimbo: Hey, I’m gonna go get a beer down at the Baby Doll — anybody comin’?… (3:20 p.m.)

I can see their point: a few seconds before I might have fully digested the moral dimensions of Ms. Amanpour’s entry, I’ve already started thinking about heading off to have a brew with my buddy Jim.

This is nothing new, however; I imagine people made the same glum predictions once upon a time about newspapers (and then telegraphs, radio, TV, etc.). The sad fact is that our moral apparatus, designed to bind human groups at the scale of families, tribes, and villages, is entirely inadequate to encompass all the woes of the world, even if we were to spend the better part of an hour trying.

We read:

New findings show that the streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain’s “moral compass” to process and could harm young people’s emotional development. … “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” said researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

I quite agree that there is a problem here, but I hardly think it has only just arisen with the advent of Twitter. Before I even arrive at my office each day, my survey of the morning paper has already brought to my cognitive doorstep a ghastly summary of tragedy and misfortune affecting thousands or millions of people. Does Ms. Immordino-Yang imagine that by the time I sit down to begin the day’s toil I have, thanks to the comparatively glacial tempo of the newsprint medium, “fully experienced” an appropriate bouquet of emotions about the “psychological states” of entire populations of suffering wretches?

No, the moral erosion lamented in this article — an inevitable consequence of global communication — has been proceeding apace for centuries. Twitter, providing a useful modern convenience, simply makes it available to the increasing number of people who lack the attention-span for television.

Related content from Sphere

4 Comments

  1. Charles says

    Actually, it’s 140 characters, not 160 words.

    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Oh my — how embarrassing. I knew it was characters, not words, but did think it was 160. It would have been easy enough to check. (I even have a Twitter account, though I have tweeted perhaps twice in the whole time I’ve belonged.)

    Anyway, thanks, Charles! The post has been corrected.

    Posted April 14, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Rain says

    Growing up my hippie parents did not allow us to watch tv…we didn’t even have one! We weren’t allowed to play with toys like Barbies, G.I. Joe or Care Bears. I had no idea what who the New Kids on the Block were and to this day I often look at my friends blankly when they start quoting the Goonies or the A-Team and they think it’s crazy that at 30 years old I’ve never been to Disneyland or DisneyWorld not sure what it’s called. I spent my time sand boarding in Colorado or cave diving in Kentucky or touring museums around the world or raising various farm animals. I never worried about how I looked or what I wore and I was and am fiercely independant. I plan on doing the same with my children in regard to cellphones and computers and cable tv. My life has been rich and full and I have travelled the world as have my two brothers. I enjoy tv and phone and my computer and occasional shopping, but didn’t own a computer or tv until I got a roommate last year and they insisted they couldn’t live without them, lol! I think all of these things are very bad for children and their use should be restricted and adults should take time off from them too…there’s so much else to the very short life we are given.

    Posted April 15, 2009 at 4:01 am | Permalink
  4. Charles says

    Thanks for correcting my tags.

    I have a Twitter account, and I post a few times a day at most, although there have been periods of days on end when I haven’t posted at all. I wrote about my induction into Twitterland in a post called “140-character neurosis.”

    It’s funny… as I was typing this comment, I was looking down at the preview expecting to see a figure tell me how many characters I had left…

    Posted April 15, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink