Twitter and Luddism

George Packer laments the fact that Twitter is replacing books. I suspect he’s overstating his case—there are still lots of books being written and read, but Matt Yglesias gets to the more fundamental point:

Despite his protestations to the contrary, this just amounts to Packer offering a luddite argument. The life of a prosperous American man circa 1960 was pretty good. No risk of starvation, no idiocy of rural life, decent job stability, etc. For your leisure time you have many books to enjoy, can listen to records (or the radio), go to the movies, or watch one of three television networks. Plenty of social problems around, but nobody was writing about “the crisis of the under-entertained American” or anything like that. And yet just consider the volume of new books that have been written in the past 50 years. Just consider the volume of new good books that have been written in the past 50 years. And yet the earth still revolved around its axis in 24 hours and around the globe in 365 days. All those new books represent a loss of time available to read all the great pre-1960 books. Less Hamlet, less Great Gatsby, less Moby Dick, less Crime and Punishment, less Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we mourn the loss of these great works!

Obviously, though, the publication of new books is progress rather than regress. A person who chose to never read a single piece of post-1960 fiction could still live a rich and full life. He could even adopt a sneering attitude toward people who insisted on reading new novels. And people who subscribe to cable television (later: DVRs). And people who buy VCRs (later: DVD players). And people who read blogs (later: Twitter feeds). But what does it really amount to? To take advantage of new opportunities to do new things means, by definition, to reduce the extent to which one takes advantage of old opportunities to do old things. One shouldn’t deny that the losses involved are real—of course they are—but simply point out that it’s unavoidable. To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

Literate people have been taught to venerate book-reading, and for good reason. Human civilizations have accumulated a tremendous amount of knowledge and wisdom over the last few centuries, and reading books is a good way to absorb some of it and put it to use in our lives. But the key part is the reading part, not the book part. The Internet is accelerating the rate at which our culture can produce, disseminate, and absorb knowledge, and Twitter is one of the many technologies helping us do that. Just this morning, for example, I learned from Bram Cohen about this interesting paper arguing that “Happy Birthday” isn’t under copyright. I learned that Chris Hayes will write a book that I hope to have time to read. Late last night, Kerry Howley tweeted about compiling a list of classic take-down essays, and Radley Balko responded with a link to this classic Mencken obituary of William Jennings Bryan.

I don’t see any obvious criteria by which to judge the Mencken essay or the copyright paper—and the literally thousands of other items of reading material I’ve discovered via Twitter—as more or less important than whatever book happens to be at the top of my to-read stack. There’s nothing magical about the printed form. Maybe those particular subjects don’t interest you, but fortunately there are lots of people tweeting about subjects that don’t interest me but might interest you. Frankly, Twitter is exactly as interesting as you are. If you tried Twitter and found it boring or shallow, that’s probably because you chose to follow boring, shallow people. It’s not really fair to blame Twitter for that.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Twitter and Luddism

  1. Rhayader says:

    I like this analysis, but I still can’t stand Twitter. To me the character limit makes for a generally shallow experience, even if I try to follow people I enjoy as bloggers (Balko, for instance). I’d rather read what they write when they have the space to actually write it.

    Of course I could just be an incorrigible misanthrope, which is a distinct possibility considering I never did anything more with Facebook than register an account.

  2. Brian Moore says:

    I’m not a twitter fan either, but it seems very unlikely that 140 character bits are really crowding out books. Blogs maybe? But even then, only non fiction ones. Though I suppose lots of the political ones resemble fiction.

  3. Many books are ridiculously overwritten. That is, they are much longer than they need to be to justify the advance the writer’s getting or the cover price of the hardback. This is true of fiction and nonfiction. For all the talk about how Internet encourages short attention spans, the publishing industry has long encouraged length for length’s sake. How much more time would we have is every interesting book were half as long?

  4. Pete says:

    Nice post, but I think you’re moving a bit fast. One thing you sort of gloss over is the McLuhan-style idea that the medium matters. When you say that it’s not about books, but about reading, you’re holding the medium constant. I’m pretty sure that the Luddite’s would maintain that reading on the internet is inherently likely to be more inane and ephemeral than reading a book, whatever it is you actually happen to be reading.

    At its worst this is a pretty stupid argument where you take the best of the off-line world and compare it to whatever’s big on Youtube this week – Andrew Keen has actually made a career out of this. But I find Nick Carr’s idea that we don’t have enough time for reflection when the next bit of knowledge is just a click away more convincing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.