Fear of the TwitterBook

I’ll go ahead and say in advance – being that the new academic year has started, I will have less and less time to do any actual writing of my own for this site, which means that more and more of the content will be random tid-bits of the Net, or articles that I have come across during the day.

Maybe you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about technology (It’s a Small World After All).  This NPR article goes hand in hand with that one.

And it makes me think of a little bit of info that I learned in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course several years ago.  It is a phenomenon called habitus.  Essentially (if I remember it correctly), it is the brain rewiring (“softly”…as in it doesn’t necessarily become “hard”wired) itself to accommodate learned actions.  Let me explain:  there are some things that are hard-wired into our brains:  breathing, or ducking when a baseball is coming at our face, for example.  But there are other “reflexes” that can actually be learned.  We aren’t born with the knowledge of using a remote, yet our thumbs know just the right spot to hit (once they’ve been taught).  Another example:  keyboards.  Once you teach yourself where the keys are, your brain can “softly” rewire itself to accommodate that action.  But it’s more than just learning an action.  To your brain it’s almost as if typing on a keyboard is a reflex, because it has set itself up that way.  So, typing actually becomes like second nature to you.

This is an example of culture (outside) affecting neurology (inside).

Now, for the NPR article.  It has nothing to do with habitus directly – but it does have to do with the relationship between technology and culture.  (For example, how the invention of the clock made everyone “aware” of time – that is, they constantly thought about minutes and seconds and hours – whereas before, such concepts of “on time” “late”, or even minutes, and seconds and hours, meant nothing.)

FEAR OF THE TWITTERBOOK, by Adam Frank

I may not have invented the Internet but it’s possible I was the first guy to find out he was gonna be a dad through it. (It’s a long, 1980s NSFnet kind of story.) I was also, without a doubt, the first guy in Nerdville with a PalmPilot. My whole professional life has demanded early tech adoption: everything from file-transfer software to 3-D visualization to mobile computing. It was, however, only a week or so ago that I sent my first tweet.

I held off for a long time on Facebook and Twitter. Now that I’m getting deep into both, I have to ask: Why did I wait so long? More broadly and more importantly, what takes any culture or any individual “so long” in adopting new technologies?

For a world both blessed and battered by innovation what forces govern the adoption of new technologies? What leads us, as individuals, to opt into new technological modalities at particular moments in their development curve, from “hot new thing” to “everyone has one”?

And what about opting out? What happens when individuals decide to completely step away from a technological modality the rest of the culture has embraced? And how about cultures as a whole? Have entire societies ever completely dismissed a burgeoning new technological capacity?

Sometimes a technology sweeps across culture with a force that simply cannot be avoided. The first public mechanical clockappeared in Orvieto, Italy, in 1307. One hundred years later public clocks had evolved into the standard even in smaller settlements. The human experience and organization of time had become wedded to the new technology of mechanical time metering and the world was never the same.

In our technology saturated world however innovations come and go. Some, such as email and iPods, spread with the speed of an epidemic and alter the genetic (mememic) code of culture. Others, like MySpace or Sony’s failed mini-disk, flare and fade, or just fail entirely. But what is the role of individual choice embedded, as it is, in its cultural background of adoption or dismissal? What price do we pay as individuals if we decide to never pick up a technology, or to opt out once it has risen to prominence? What reasons shape these choices?

The “videophone” presents an interesting on-going example of adoption/opt-out. Pairing video and voice communication seemed the pinnacle of future-tech in Stanley Kubrick’s film2001: A Space Oddessy. Now, in 2011, the technological capacity for video calls has existed for years. As super-cool as the idea appears, the reality is that people remain luke-warm about its use. Skype and other platforms have made the service insanely simple. Still, many folks simply don’t want to be “seen” on every call and won’t use the technology unless forced into it (such as in work-related video conferencing where you are supposed to look nice anyway).

At some point video calls may become so prevalent that rejecting one will seem as Luddite as not having a telephone in your house was 30 years ago. But at this moment in videophone history, it is still possible to opt out.

Which brings me back to my avoidance of Facebook. To be honest I may have held back because of tech snobbery. I can still remember how horrified I was back in 1992 when I saw .comappearing at the end of a Web address. “You can’t use the Internet to sell things,” I thought. “It’s for learning!” (Obviously you don’t want me as your investment advisor). And to be truthful I may have avoided it (and Twitter) because, at 49, I am just getting old and crusty. But in reality, I stayed away because I did not see the point. Overwhelmed with email and texts and my omnipresent iPhone, I could not see why I wanted another node of electronic contact. And Twitter? 140 Characters? Really?

But my kids forced me onto Facebook a year ago (I demanded they friend me in the name of transparency) and my publisher pushed me to Twitter as part of my part of the launch of my new book (shameless plug here). In both cases I could immediately see I had blinded myself to how and why these platforms had launched such powerful reconfigurations of the tech-enabled cultural imagination. As my editor at NPR, Wright Bryan, puts it: “It’s the insane flexibility of these platforms that gives them so much power.”

It is the open-ended brilliance of Facebook and (as I am learning) Twitter in creating ever-shifting, ever-nested webs of connection that take them beyond themselves. Both sites may eventually be replaced by something newer. But by creating technological norms for a particular kind of connectivity, the electronic social networks they embody are transforming our historical moment as completely as mechanical time metering changed life in 15th century.

Culture sees itself and the cosmos as a whole through the lens of its technological capabilities. That fact may explain when adoption grows beyond mere choice. Once a technology settles in to the point where it begins shaping the dominant metaphors of a society (the 17th century’s “clockwork universe” for example), then there is no going back, no opting out. You and everyone you know will be assimilated.

Until that moment, however, you may still have time to hit “delete all” and quietly walk away.

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