500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider
We feast on social media networks, chewing through posts, texts, moments, images. We are insatiable, worse than zombies eating brains. It’s scary as a zombie movie, but scarier still is the possibility that we aren’t consuming anything – the networks are consuming us. Watch a Southern California kid crossing the street while texting, oblivious to traffic, and you will certainly see a type of zombie.
Attention is the rarest form of generosity, wrote philosopher Simone Weil. It can be argued that we have become quite miserly. Since my nose is in my iPad now, does that mean that I care less about you?
The NY Times recently ran an opinion piece by Jonathan Safran Foer. He pointed out that most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. Traveling across the country to visit a friend was a bit of a bother, but a telephone conversation was a reasonable substitute. Better yet, when we didn’t want to speak with that person anyway, leaving a message on their phone machine was an easy way to avoid them and communicate, too. This cleverness made the substitutes seem better than the real thing. Phoning is more efficient than being there, leaving a message more efficient than talking, and now texting is most efficient of all. Texting is pure information. When you text ‘Getting coffee. Home soon,’ the receiver of that information can’t know what sort of coffee-self will walk in the door. A pleasant person, an over-caffeinated rageaholic. (That never happens here.)
But let’s look at the bright side! Glance backward in history to 17th century London and you’ll the social media of that time. It involved also caffeine. It was called a coffeehouse. Just as today in social media, social boundaries are erased (especially on Twitter), so too were they erased in the coffeehouse. Strangers from different walks of life can start coffeehouse conversations then and now. Tom Standage elaborated on this in a NYT op-ed, discussing the upside of doing caffine in public. Turns out that hanging out in coffeehouses and using social media are both great generators of culture and commerce.
In London of the 1600s, going back somewhat pre-Starbucks, merchants kept regular tables at coffeehouses where they transacted their business. The coffee-fueled meetings became the foundation of the London Stock Exchange. Another coffeehouse group eventually formed the insurance giant Lloyds of London. ‘It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Issac Newton to write his Principia Mathematica.’ Standage wrote in the Times. Not to worry about spending time in a coffeehouse or on social media! You might collaborate on something big.
Being connected and disconnected at the same time is one of the great paradoxes of the wired world. The other one is the rewiring of information and power, placing the power to communicate in the hands of many (citizen journalists, citizen scientists) while consolidating ownership of the communications platforms into the hands of a few, who then amass great wealth (like Google and Facebook.)
Still, confusing as it is, I have no plans to buy a horse. When I get too much emotionless information from texting or overloaded from Twitter, I step back a few hundred years and pick up the phone, or go to a coffeehouse to overhear the formation the next Principia Mathematica or Lloyds of London.