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The Gadget in the Gray Flannel Suit

• October 13, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Generation S and the coming humanization of the digital revolution.

Early this year, to help keep in touch with the office, I bought a semi-smart phone, meaning that it surfed the Web and sent e-mail, but wasn’t controlled by a touch screen. I wasn’t immediately able to figure how to tweet from it. And how are you going to start a journalistic revolution if your cell phone doesn’t do Twitter?

As I worked on joining the mobile Twitterverse, I happened to be in Chicago, at a journalism conference that included a talk by a Twitter guru. He was one of those caffeinated, if-I-can-do-it-you-can-do-it-too new media evangelists, and he said he’d won a contract to write a book about his new marketing concept — called, cleverly, “unmarketing” — in part because of his 50,000 Twitter followers. And it only took him a few months to attract that many followers by posting to Twitter either 100 or 1,000 times a day; I’m not sure which number he cited. I was too busy feeling like a worthless Twitter laggard to take notes.

On my return home, I began following dozens of new Twitter feeds, on the advice of those who said it was a way to get others to follow me and thereby build my network. And this is how I came to follow Karl Rove* (or whatever poor intern tweets for Karl Rove) and a couple of hundred other people who spit out a constant stream of 140-character-or-shorter digital messages that I couldn’t possibly monitor. Some of them — including Rove — returned the favor and followed me. I doubt that he or his intern is paying rapt attention to my tweeting, either.

I think my response was fairly common. The gadget-driven opportunity to interact, from almost anywhere, with an ever-expanding universe of people seemed entrancing initially. And a broader network of digital contacts has done some positive things for both my personal and professional lives. After a time, though, the gadget’s call — check your e-mail; someone just commented on your Facebook post! — became less a joy and more an irritant that I sometimes purposely avoided. I didn’t take conscious note of my intermittent withdrawal from interactivity, though, until I read Bill Powers’ new book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

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Birthed at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Powers’ book — which makes the case that the digital revolution has imposed real burdens on those who are living through it even as it’s created astonishing opportunities for them — is anything but a scholarly bore. A sort of 21st-century Walden, the book combines Powers’ experience of family life in the digital age with historical responses to tectonic shifts in information technology, from the Greeks and Romans to Gutenberg, Shakespeare and Marshall McLuhan. In the end, he builds a theoretical underpinning for a fairly persuasive practical approach to limiting the negative consequences of the always-connected experience.

And there are negative consequences to digital ubiquity, research shows, from car and train crashes by cell-phoners and text-messagers to, at least in some cases, social isolation and sleep problems. Powers is anything but a tech Neanderthal; he’s written about the media in its various formats, new and old, for The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New Republic. But as he acknowledges the positive effects of connectivity, he points up a central problem with the multiplying numbers of screens and applications begging for our attention: They are so attractive, they splinter our interior lives, chipping away at the focus required for the deep thought that is at the core of creativity and the examined life.

I’m not going to offer a detailed description of the book’s suggestions for balancing life in the digital age. If you want to know what Hamlet‘s version of a BlackBerry might be without buying the book, the answer is just a Google away. But I did want to explore a couple of thoughtful points Powers made when we talked in August.

I asked him why he and/or his book hadn’t really been set upon by the digital proselytizers who attack even slight criticism of the Internet wave that has crashed over the media universe in the last two decades. Powers’ first answer was relatively prosaic: The gadget-heads didn’t pounce because he didn’t write the book on their turf but on a broader philosophical plane. He also noted (as he has in the book) that many of the people who are feeling the downside of total connectedness most acutely are the early adopter, digital maximalists — the technorati themselves. Even people at the forefront of the digital revolution, it seems, have begun to realize that revolutions can have unfortunate side effects.

But Powers’ most trenchant comment came almost as an aside, as we talked about his recent book tour. The most enthusiastic supporters of his book, he said, turned out to be under 35, a lot of them college students. He followed with an analogy that, I think, may be worth deeper consideration: He suggested that we may now be in the 1950s of the tech revolution, when young people are beginning to question the idea that having ever-more digital screens, networks and applications will bring happiness and success, just as teens once recoiled from a future of financial security that required gray flannel suits and suffocating housewifery.

I doubt we’re about to experience a wave of Beatnik anti-digitalism, but a backlash to always-connected is brewing. To support that assertion and counter the notion I might be a technological troglodyte, I offer a Web-friendly list, ready and waiting for search engine optimization.

Four flashing signs that digital gadgets and ever-increasing interconnectedness are losing their cool, all of them, for no particular reason, connected to America’s newspaper of record:

1. As I wrote this column, New York Times media and pop-culture watcher David Carr was trying to organize a panel discussion for next year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference titled, “I’m So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done.” Here’s a relevant quote from the panel description: “Make the coffee, check the RSS, groom the avatar, freshen the blog, make nice with the Twitter, now it’s time to … do the same thing again. … Let’s figure out whether the Web is the greatest productivity tool ever invented or a destroyer of initiative and long thoughts.” Austin-based SXSW has evolved from being the coolest music showcase in the land to serve the same purpose for cinematic and digital arts. By my last check, Carr had 268,000 Twitter followers; he is, in my estimation, both a new media fan and a determined searcher for the next new thing.

2. On her Fresh Air NPR interview program, Terry Gross interviewed New York Times reporter Matt Richtel for a segment titled, “Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets.” Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about the danger of driving while using cell phones and other devices, has clearly seen the serious stress that omnipresent digi-gadgetry can create: “Well, here’s what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming e-mail, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let’s say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat. You get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. … They’re playing to these most primitive impulses, and they’re asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.”

3. A recent post on the TimesGadgetwise blog titled “Keep Facebook Places From Driving You Crazy” explains ways to avoid problems that can accompany using a Facebook application that tells friends where you are. Eight of the first 11 comments on the piece were harshly negative toward geolocation apps — and remember, this is among readers of a blog subtitled “Getting Smart About Personal Technology.” The sharpest jab is worth presenting in its entirety: “Having read this article, I have come to the conclusion that the human race (at least the middle and upper classes in the so-called developed world) has gone stark raving mad. These are not real problems. They are what authors have referred to as ‘champagne problems’ or ‘bourgeois suffering.’ They are utterly meaningless and inconsequential — descriptors that can unfortunately often be applied to our lives in the wired world. Let’s all cancel our Facebook accounts (as I just did), turn off our iPhones, go volunteer at a local shelter, set up automatic monthly donations to local and global charities — to help people whose problems with Facebook Places probably appear lower on the priority list than ‘shelter for my family, adequate health care for my family, and nutritious food for my family’ — and then go for a nice long walk in the woods.”

4. The Onion, the satirical publication that bills itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” recently published one of its trademark faux news articles, headlined: “New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It/Let Someone Else Report On This Bullshit.” In the story, which links to a fawning New York Times piece about the location-based social networking service Foursquare, the reporter repeatedly indicates his profane distaste for having to report on every new Web or mobile app that comes down the broadband pipe.

When a segment of American life reaches the level of absurdity needed to qualify for The Onion, that segment is no longer on the cutting edge of anything but derision.

To stick with the New York Times theme, a “Week in Review” piece recently quoted Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, in this way: “I love the iPad, but my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through.”

I have no idea how Negroponte feels about his lost narrative reading capabilities, but I think the capacity to access and process complex stories is fundamental to the human experience and, in particular, to self-government. Solving problems requires understanding them whole, in their full context. Holding public officials accountable requires a depth of reportage and presentation that is not maximized by the forms that digital media now inhabit – as wonderfully as those forms support standard-issue breaking-news coverage.

Powers thinks that eventually the way to make the digital juggernaut work for people involves making the technology through which connectivity happens more human-centered and human-scale. I agree. Multitasking and the wisdom of the crowd have their uses — they just aren’t central to humanity’s highest aims. When we get computerized gadgetry that extends human intellectual abilities as naturally and seamlessly as eyeglasses extend vision, it will inevitably stop distracting us and start helping us focus whatever powers we have on the problems we could solve, the inventions we might make and the art we must, to remain human, create.

Until then, I’ll be listening for the bongo drums of Generation S — the generation that’s never known a world without interactive screens and is, therefore, secure in evaluating their usefulness — telling the rest of us why conformity isn’t part of the cutting edge, and why we don’t need to follow Karl Rove, or anyone else, to be our best selves.

* The reference to Rove is rhetorical, rather than ideological. I have seen Rove speak and shaken his hand; I think him a brilliant practitioner of the political arts. James Carville could have served the same function in the column.

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John Mecklin
John Mecklin was the debut editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune, serving from its birth through May 2011. Over the last 15 years, he's also been: the editor of High Country News, a nationally acclaimed magazine that reports on the American West; the consulting executive editor for the launch of Key West, a city/regional magazine; and the top editor for award-winning newsweeklies in San Francisco and Phoenix that specialized in narrative journalism. In an earlier incarnation, he was an investigative reporter at the Houston Post and covered the Persian Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Iraq for the paper. His writing has won national acclaim; writers working at his direction have won a panoply of major journalism honors, including the George Polk Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate, the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and the Sidney Hillman Award for reporting on social justice issues. Mecklin holds a master's in public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's in psychology from Indiana University.

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