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NYT calls it a Twitter Trap. I say Keller needs to rethink

Over on Facebook, a friend pointed to the May 18 article by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times: The Twitter Trap.

Keller wrote such a load of nonsense – my heart sank when I read it. A few thoughts on that story in a moment, but first: let’s recall that, Keller’s claim that The New York Times “has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto” notwithstanding, The Times has egg on its face regarding its claims to priority regarding the Osama bin Laden story. The Times has been stumbling badly when it comes to dealing with new media, “prizewinning gusto” or not.

So what does Keller say about Twitter (and other social media) in his opinion piece? It seems he wants to blame social media for making us stupider. It’s a by-now-familiar argument. You know the drill: Google is making us stupider because we don’t have to remember as much or as many facts (or factoids) as we used to. Keller repeats the argument verbatim:

Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Oh sure, I bet every yokel you encountered at the local sty back in the day could recite …um, what, exactly?

Middlemarch, says Keller.

Well, allow me a peasant moment: oy.

C’mon. You’ve heard these (tired) arguments by now, right? Back in the day, before we had all the new technology that provides our poor brains with crutches, we were all veritable Atlases of erudition.


Where, I wonder, do people get the idea that people were generally so much smarter and better “back in the day”?

But that’s not really my problem with Keller’s argument.

It’s about Middlemarch (which, full disclosure, I haven’t actually read) and it’s about taking facts out of context to make his case. Keller “blames” Gutenberg (that is: the invention of the printing press) for the death of the alleged ability to remember “vast quantities of information,” but here’s what he wrote:

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. (…)

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.”

Wait… Rewind! Middlemarch, dear Bill Keller, would not exist – much less be an object of your regret over mnemonic challenges unmet – if not for Gutenberg (“the Mark Zuckerberg of his day” – eww).

As I wrote on my friend’s Facebook wall, Middlemarch was written centuries after the invention of the printing press, and Keller not only would never have been expected to memorize it, he wouldn’t have had a chance to, since that literary format depended in the first place on the printing press for its emergence.

No Gutenberg, no Eliot, one could just as easily argue.

Keller seems too married to his certainties to understand or appreciate formal innovations that actually create new content.

There’s plenty wrong with how we use social media – just as there’s a lot wrong with how we’ve used television (reality TV, anyone?), or any other media. But to sit around as the freaking executive editor of The New York Times and kvetch about Gutenberg (thinly disguised as – fie! – a Mark Zuckerberg avant la lettre!) robbing you of your chance to recite Middlemarch just shows lazy thinking.

I guess there isn’t yet an app for that.

And for the record: if you’re the editor and can’t turn off the goddamn Tweetdeck (or whatever other intrusive / distracting app you’re using), then that’s your problem. Don’t go blaming the technologies for the time you’re wasting.


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