The New Yorker Discovers Twitter, Scoffs

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The New Yorker's Steve Coll and George Packer--two of the English-speaking world's premiere journalists--are awfully preoccupied with Twitter this week. Packer, a hardened foreign correspondent, took to his blog, of all places, to denounce Twitter:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. But that supposes we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.

After a bit of pushback from New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton and others, Packer responds that he doesn't need to use Twitter to know it's changing the world for the worse.

I haven’t used crack, either, but—as a Bilton reader pointed out—you don’t need to do the drug to understand the effects. One is the sight of adults walking into traffic with their eyes glued to their iPhones, or dividing their attention about evenly between their lunch partner and their BlackBerry. [...]

There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world. The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution.

Enter Steve Coll, who ventures onto Twitter for the first time and comes away with the question, "Does Twitter have moral characteristics?"

A technological system is as indifferent to the character of its user as dice are to the character of the craps player. And yet the qualities of excellence in a great book do seem specific to the book’s form, and what it requires of its human partner. The book’s disappearance might well herald the diminishment of those qualities in culture.

The qualities of excellence in a great tweet—let’s stipulate that these might include spontaneous humor and the real-time witnessing of crimes against humanity—are also particular to its form. It may be that the generation growing up with Twitter will come to feel that the distinctive qualities the technology requires—such as living without privacy in an electronic hive, bee-like—is natural and desirable. For the rest of us, like all forms of evolution, it will require adaptation. Resistance is part of adaptation.

All told, the two have so far dedicated 2,710 words to the topic, about the equivalent of one full-length New Yorker feature. If Packer and Coll are worried about Twitter distracting from long-form print journalism, they seem to be proving their own thesis.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.