The Next Time Someone Says Twitter Is Killing Deep Thinking With Short Quick Messages, Show Them This

from the history-repeating-itself dept

It seems like we keep hearing people insist that the internet, and things like Twitter and Google, are making us dumber because we’re no longer really delving into anything with any depth, but rather just finding and spreading short snippets of text. There’s never been any real support for that concept, but leave it to good old xkcd to put it all in perspective with a bunch of historical quotes that show people saying basically the identical things more than a century ago.

The Pace of Modern Life
TL;DR: People have pretty much always insisted that “back in the day, we spent much more time thinking/digesting/experiencing” and that “the kids these days just rush around.” Maybe, just possibly, that’s not actually true. Perhaps it’s just that, as we all get older, time seems to move much faster, and the complaints are really people who are getting older (and, yes, this includes me) recognizing that we can’t always keep up.

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Comments on “The Next Time Someone Says Twitter Is Killing Deep Thinking With Short Quick Messages, Show Them This”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: doom

You may be sarcastic, but note how the last example is from 1915 – almost 100 years ago! You know why? Because later examples of the same are of very low quality, exhibiting none of the literary proficiency of their predecessors. Think about it – the very people who look out for and learn to craft well-written critique of the current state of writing cannot pen a short article as good as the ones from a century or more ago. The ancients were right each time, it’s just that writing died out as a form slower than predicted.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Mark Twain opened my eyes about this

I had a copy of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” that had a rather lengthy introduction written by Twain. It consisted in large part of a diatribe against the youth of his day.

I’ve never forgotten it because every single thing he said was precisely what people say now, right down to “it wasn’t like this when I was young” and “society is doomed”.

Later, I learned that it has always been so: every generation thinks both that they invented sex and that society is about to collapse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mark Twain opened my eyes about this

Kids these days…

The tribalisim apparent, has always bothered me(since elementary). The proceeding generation will always be smarter(yes, this is pretty much fact, IQ tests need to be reworked every so often to keep the numbers at an average) than the preceeding, as they get the opportunity to learn from their forefathers(mothers). These(writers) unfortueately, uninformed fellows seem to have no idea concerning what is actually happening on a societal level, their fear based thinking is nothing more than that; Fearful.

Over and over again, I’ve listened to and witnessed many older and younger people trying to submit that we’re headed for a downfall, which is soley to be blamed on the younger generation. All I see is people trying to differentiate themselves from others, based on age/looks/some other useless metric(in this context). It’s actually quite tiring, annoying even.

My guess it’s the price we pay for our ability to differentiate.

The idea that our forefathers were able to ‘concentrate’ more than us or others of our time is ignorant at best. Their are people whom can concentrate and think deeply on a subject and their are people whom are more adept at “doing without thinking” When these two types come together, watch out as they will find a way to succeed. Likely in an extraordinary fashion.

You child-haters can go on your merry way, if you do so, you’re simply edging yourselves and your family ever closer to being naturally exempted from the gene pool. (Much to my amusement, as well as sadness, why be so utterly selfish and stupid?)

Anonymous Coward says:

can't? more like won't...

“recognizing that we can’t always keep up.”

I think s/can’t/won’t there is more accurate.

I have plenty of “get off my lawn” moments as well – but at least I recognize them. I at least keep up with technology and modern culture, even if I don’t always enjoy it.

I also take time to educate my children on how things used to be done, so they don’t just take for granted what they have now.

Malor (profile) says:

And they’ve been right pretty much every time.

There are very few modern people with the mental discipline and fortitude to read and write as well as people did in 1871. People back then carried around enormous amounts of information in their heads, and had an incredible ability to concentrate.

Modern people have outsourced all that, and most of us are largely reliant on technological devices to function as memory, organizational tools, and instant research assistants.

Is this better than what we were doing before? I don’t know. I think the jury is kind of out on this one.

But I guarantee you that those writers from the 19th and early 20th century would absolutely amaze you with their mental prowess. Perhaps it’s like comparing muscle power with a steam engine, but those folks had mental muscles like Charles Atlas had physical ones.

The vast majority of us, who think we’re so very strong/clever, are actually flabby and weak compared to our predecessors.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think it’s better, personally.

The only tangible metric which has improved in the past 100 years is “how long people live” — everything else is a matter of opinion, or difficult (at best) to correlate substantially with an actual benefit to the bottom line, that being the health and stability of society as a whole.

We did not have yearly mass-murders a hundred years ago, for example, and they would laugh at the degree of “liberty” that we ‘enjoy’ now.

What is the worth of a longer life?
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” was once the prevailing attitude (Franklin was no extremist), and now “My rat-eaten hide before all other concerns.”

I cannot see that as an improvement.

Prison might be less deadly than execution, but it is hard to say that it is superior a fate — only now the prison is our very minds, but unlike The Matrix, there is no way to “unplug” and magically make everything better.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Can I point out that large numbers of (northern) European Christians are actually Protestants? Poland is the only substantial Catholic population in north Europe. (Ireland is kinda small.)

Eastern Europe has various flavours of Orthodox Christianity – you know, the bit where the Roman Empire survived until the 1450s.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

We did not have yearly mass-murders a hundred years ago

I’m not so sure this is very true, especially once you take population into account. Mass-murders have been around for as long as man has.

The main difference nowadays, I think, is that you hear incessantly about every such incident.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” was once the prevailing attitude

No, it was never the prevailing attitude, and was as radical a statement then as now. The prevailing attitude was what it pretty much is now: “if I’m not personally affected, I don’t care”. Remember, even the American Revolution was not supported by the majority of the colonists.

Никто says:

I defy you to find one modern day piece of correspondence which approaches, in depth, sophistication, or breadth, the letters routinely written 100 years ago.

As is disingenuity the rule of the day I will stipulate: this does not mean that drivel was not written then — nor, necessarily, that it would be impossible to write well now.

What it DOES mean is that the bar is lower, far lower, than it has ever been in the past, and that you and your ilk don’t even notice. You don’t read things from that era; you don’t compare the thought or expression thereof with that of today.

Achievement is not about averages: those have changed little across human history — what has changed is the frequency and magnitude of the giants among men; we have no modern Lord Kelvins, or Socrates, or Nietzsches, or Newtons.

We don’t even have a modern-day Einstein; the only truly magnificent intellect of which I’m aware is a self-imposed hermit who turned down our paltry attempts at ‘recognition’ because he knew all to well that they demeaned his work.

Is this doom? No, we are still alive and breathing; but it is always the work of relativists, liberals, and fools to claim that just because things could become worse that they have not degenerated at all.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Shakespeare was writing popular entertainment in the language of the time. His work would have been no harder for a contemporary to understand in terms of the language than anything on TV right now. We have to do a lot of extra work when reading it to understand it these days and this often gives the wrong impression to people of his genius. When we are separated from people by time and language and contemporary thought we can be tricked into thinking that they are somehow better, more experiences and deeper thinkers than our contemporaries but when you look you see that they thought the same of the people who came before them.

A hundred years from now there will be someone like you, separated from us by thought time and language who will be cherry picking the best and brightest and bemoaning how we no longer talk or think in such ways. You called other people here arrogant for disagreeing with you but the fact is that people are people and there are more people than ever and alive right now are exactly the kind of people that you, born a hundred years from now, would hero worship while ignoring the fact that such people are around you right now thinking great thoughts, producing great works of endless creativity.

Anonymous Coward says:

“There are very few modern people with the mental discipline and fortitude to read and write as well as people did in 1871.”

One would argue the literacy rate is better now than it was back then.

“Achievement is not about averages: those have changed little across human history — what has changed is the frequency and magnitude of the giants among men; we have no modern Lord Kelvins, or Socrates, or Nietzsches, or Newtons.”

Yes because as we all know, historical geniuses are always revered during their time period.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

And all those mental giants got the low hanging fruit. If someone today independently came up with Newton’s laws, we would ignore them completely rather than praising them for their understanding. We have mental giants today who are getting the next lowest level of fruit, but they are harder to recognize because their fields are necessarily more specialized.

Никто says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Your arrogance is astonishing.

Anything is obvious in retrospect; you are trying to compare your understanding of the world, over a hundred years later, with the mental acuity it took to achieve the leaps of comprehension required to get from where we were to where you are now.

You are as pathetic and self centred as everyone else in your generation.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wow, you didn’t get my comment at all. Perhaps you should spend some more time reading and thinking.

The key word is independently. If some Amazonian tribal guy with no education to speak of wrote a book about how he independently discovered some new mathematical model that is really just calculus as we understand it, nobody would care, even though he would need the same mental genius as Newton. In fact, this happened. See Leibniz. We don’t judge people for how smart they are. We judge them by how novel they are. Newton did it first, therefore he is a genius. Some guy does it second, but independently, and we don’t care.

Mental geniuses from centuries ago had a level of genius to make a leap to understand things we take for granted now. Nobody needs to make these leaps anymore, but that doesn’t mean nobody could. Many people are making further leaps, but their leaps are in such specialized fields that we, as a society, can’t even begin to appreciate it because understanding those leaps is beyond us.

Or you know, everyone is dumb nowadays. Except you of course.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Newton did it first, therefore he is a genius. Some guy
does it second, but independently, and we don’t care.

That is because the patent system is a first-to-file system.

Each law of nature should be patented. (And probably copyrighted too!)

Was intellectual property the same blight on humanity one hundred years ago as it is today? See Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla. See their patent abuse. See their commercial fights that would remind you of Apple vs. The World of Android or Monsanto vs. Farmers.

Никто says:

Re: Re:

One might also observe that you nitpicked (incorrectly, at that!) one ancillary aspect of what I wrote without addressing the central premiss.

One might almost think you had the very lack of reading comprehension described by Malor, in the post preceding mine.

One might assume you were a fool, were not the proof of your ill-begotten drivel sufficient to make it fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

He could be wrong sure, but there is also the fact that people in that day and age spoke a different language that is today foreign to modern people, in a hundred years people may look back and see LoL as a polite word and marvel how well structure the sentences were, oh the good ol’ days.

But I am old and don’t care, as long as the guy can pass information I don’t care if he use the word ball to describe a sphere.

Ether was once used to describe the emptiness the big great void the nothingness the nada, is an archaic form that was at the time almost certainly mundane and today is only know to scholars because its time have passed.

So there is that, in those times people constructed sentences differently, it doesn’t mean it was clear, we have only surviving texts from that age, we don’t have all text ever written to base any kind of conclusion, have any common man texts survived by which we can compared how they expressed themselves compared to todays common people or you want to compare great writers of the time with everyday people and not with ours own great writers today?

Ben (profile) says:

Re: (literacy)

One would argue the literacy rate is better now than it was back then.

I seem to recall that in Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America that he noticed everyone read, the predominance being newepapers, but otherwise self-teaching manuals, e.g. “Teach yourself to Dance”, and “How to be a Carpenter”. A historian friend of mine commented that those self-published books (every dance master felt obligated to proclaim themselves as such by publishing a dance manual, quite often “liberating” other dance master’s steps — [infringement!]) made it possible to reconstruct in great detail what the people of that time did, from sewing, to dance steps, to farming.

Anthony Trollope‘s North America made a similar point:

But the numbers of the popular books of the day, printed and sold, afford the most conclusive proof of the extent to which education is carried in the States. The readers of Tennyson, Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer, Collins, Hughes, and?Martin Tupper, are to be counted by tens of thousands in the States, to the thousands by which they may be counted in our own islands. I do not doubt that I had fully fifteen copies of the “Silver Cord” thrown at my head in different railway cars on the continent of America. Nor is the taste by any means confined to the literature of England. Longfellow, Curtis, Holmes, Hawthorne, Lowell, Emerson,?and Mrs. Stowe, are almost as popular as their English rivals. I do not say whether or no the literature is well chosen, but there it is. It is printed, sold, and read. The disposal of ten thousand copies of a work is no large sale in America of a book published at a dollar; but in England it is a large sale of a book brought out at five shillings.

(effectively saying literacy in America was 10 times the literacy in England — oh, maybe that isn’t saying much 🙂 )

Modern literacy? According to the CIA (and by extension the NSA since they read everything) the US hit 99.99% literacy in 2008 (according to the CIA World Factbook).

So yes,

One would argue the literacy rate is better now than it was back then.

Literacy is better now, but a comparison of the quality of what is/was/can be read, I believe, would make the “literacy” rate a somewhat poor metric.

Related to the 99.99% literacy is the National Assessment of Reading Level [NAARL] results in 2002/2003 which had

This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text”, could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials”, and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” Further, this study showed that 41% to 44% of U.S. adults in the lowest level on the literacy scale (literacy rate of 35 or below) were living in poverty

“Literacy” is a low bar.

Jim G. says:

Just like the mid-90's

This thread reminds me of all the people who were upset in the mid 90?s about emoticons. The general attitude was ?Surely those authors who are incapable of creating a positive emotional tone by employment of their verbal skills should not be allowed to use a smiley-face, lest this republic deservedly perish.?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

To some extend increasing (in the economist world it is part of what is called “productivity”) but it is definitely not accelerating…

The only thing that is accelerating is the number of laws. 20 years ago politicians wrote laws, 10 years ago you needed a few pHds to scan for compliance with other laws. Today you need a larger department to researh where it is possible to make changes to laws, while new laws are written by lobbyists/interested parties.

Since it is almost impossible for politicians to change laws, they prefer adding new ones and because of the increased rights of companies it has become a very lucrative deal for government contractors to write new laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just the advancement of computer technology and internet protocols alone were built on the backs of geniuses.

And that’s discounting all of the works being done across sciences (that is highly specialized).

I’d argue that we are smarter as a whole then we were 100-200 years ago. Simply because of our literacy rates.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We also have some very deep thinkers who have solved immense technological problems that would seem to border on magical to previous generations. Even to people of the 1970’s.

A few examples:

Computer vision has advanced to the state that it is an important part of self driving cars, and cameras that focus on the faces, and don’t snap the picture until everyone is smiling. The latest smartphones that don’t dim the screen until you take your eyes off the screen. (Just you try having a staring contest with a Samsung Galaxy S4 to see whether you blink first or the screen dims first!) Or tracking your eye movements to scroll the text on the smartphone screen as you are reading closer to the bottom.

Speech recognition that, while not perfected, is commercially useful, and now used by many ordinary people everyday. Furthermore, it is getting better every day.

We have built computer complexes of instant information retrieval (not just Google either, but Wikipedia, and more specialized ones) that would be “great machine” type science fiction in times past. Plus it’s all instantly accessible by a device in your pocket or purse carried by most of the population.

Global mapping and positioning that can give you precise directions.

If these problems are so easy, why weren’t they solved in earlier eras of computing? Like in the 1970’s or 80’s? It’s not only a matter of having enough computing power, some real intelligence is needed to solve the problems.

We’re closer to AI or something approximating it than ever before. People in the past would have absolutely marveled at what we have today.

Is it possible that some of this accomplishment was achieved because the people doing it had their mental faculties freed up by the use of machines that deal with the mundane reminders, contacts, memory, notes, and trivia of life? They don’t need to spend a long time over a piece of paper to have a discussion, when they can do it quickly on line, or even communicate something succinctly in a tweet?

There always is, and always will be the average muck. It will appear to drown out the jewels. You can see this everywhere. YouTube. Twitter. Blogs. Etc. But I suspect it was a true in the past.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, I should have mentioned robotics.

Instead of clumsy clunkers with wheels in the feet, we have robots with true bipedal locomotion. As well as four or more legged robots.

I could also mention some medicine.

My real point is all these advances didn’t just spring forth fully formed. They are the result of bright people and hard work. Something that some people seem to think is lacking today. Maybe it’s just different.

People certainly have not changed since the dawn of history. If you took children from a few thousand years ago, they would take to a PS/3 or Tablet computer just as quickly as kids today.

dennis deems (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s all well and good, but it addresses none of the concerns expressed in the quotes you so blithely dismiss:

  • the art of letter-writing and the death of the art of conversation
  • degradation of the quality of writing in general
  • an abundance of people who write badly
  • the perpetual acceleration of modern life
  • lack of leisure time
  • diminishing attention spans
  • shallow education
  • ascendancy of sensationalist journalism

To me, at least, it’s abundantly clear that each of these concerns voiced approximately a century ago was well warranted.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cryptogams and the NSA

Emailing passages from Finnegan’s Wake summons the FBI.

Cryptogams and the NSA, by John Sifton

THE first thing I did after I heard about the highly classified NSA PRISM program two years ago was set up a proxy server in Peshawar to email me passages from Joyce?s Finnegans Wake. A literary flight of fancy. I started sending back excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.

The cantankerous Seymour Hersh was my inspiration. He had told me about the program in a clipped expletive-filled summary in the summer of 2011: ?They?re scooping fucking everything, man! Phones, Internet, the whole works.?

I didn?t exactly believe him. He had also told me in 2008 that the Bush administration was close to authorizing airstrikes on Iran. So I treated his new pronouncement as a possibility, a sign from a questionable but often accurate oracle. I had wanted to rebel. The idea of esoteric poetry and prose in the NSA?s vaults appealed to me. ?Yes,? I said to myself. ?Yes I will.? And so I set out to tell Joyce?s story of a Chapelizod family, in a new way.

I acknowledge now, of course, that the venture was not the wisest idea. Certainly after I was indicted I regretted the hoax. My wife has had her regrets, too. Signing over your house to a law firm is a humbling experience, and for my wife, a clarifying one.




Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Cryptogams and the NSA

But this is clearly off topic.


I disagree. Or I wouldn’t have posted it. I think this story responds to the assertion ?Twitter Is Killing Deep Thinking With Short Quick Messages?. Further, the act of posting it ?mostly as a bare excerpt? is a response to the lengthy list of quoted passages that you posted from the xkcd webcomic.

But it’s your site. So?

Anonymous Coward says:'s true

Seriously, read through some of those. Yes, articles have become shorter and shorter over time. Yes, most news has completely become entertainment and isn’t news anymore. Yes, we spend less time directly interacting with other humans (including the bit about how we’re more interested with reading the paper than spending time talking to the friend next to you on the train…just replace newspaper with phone/eReader).

This isn’t a “get off my lawn!” thing. This isn’t people getting old and crotchety and those damn kids and their hippity hoppity music. It’s a fact, people read less, things are shorter, there’s less human interaction.

The only comment this XKCD is making is that this is nothing new, and it’s been slowly going this direction for well over 100 years. Way to miss the point, I guess.

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