So 5 Minutes Ago

Taping this week’s DEMOcast with Keith Shaw got me waxing philosophical. We were discussing the moon landing and, if it occurred today, what sort of reaction it would elicit. The conclusion we ultimately came to was that it would generate some excitement for a few hours, then everyone would move on to the next meme. In the Twit-verse, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes shrinks to seconds.

There is no better example of this than what happened on June 25th. We were all humming along happily on Twitter, changing our timestamps to Tehran and tinging our avatars green, when the Iranian political struggle ran smack-dab into the death of an American pop icon. Guess who won? Not only did the death of Michael Jackson push Iran’s issues deep into the archive, it actually prevented many Iranians from accessing Twitter at all. Risking life and limb to fight for freedom in one of the world’s harshest dictatorships? Sorry, but the guy wrote ‘Beat It.’

I’m being a bit harsh here for comic effect. I was a Michael fan too and certainly won’t argue that his death wasn’t news. The sad part is, that in our new Internet-powered reality, once you’re usurped online, you’re history. It seems that there are no longer moments in which the world stops and holds a collective breath.

In the time of the moon landing, there were (maybe) three television stations. And that was it. No YouTube to watch keyboard cat play off Neil Armstrong. No Facebook Connect to record your minute-by-minute reactions. Just a bunch of people crowded around radios and TVs to witness the true power of human ingenuity. There were no distractions from the awesome event at hand. Even in this century, we had a collective-breath moment on 9/11, albeit a breath of horror. Granted, Twitter would have been incredibly valuable that day in many aspects. But I think it would have altered the day, and the ensuing weeks, ever so slightly. When a populace can communicate instantaneously, and simultaneously, it affects the actual course of the event.

This can be both a positive and a negative. Imagine, for a moment, that Twitter had existed during the Columbine massacre. (I’m reading that book right now and can’t get it out of my head.) One of the many tragedies that day was massive confusion about the number of shooters, their location, and bomb placement. Because of this, several victims arguably died needlessly. Insert the ability of students to tweet from inside the building and the police response might have been decidedly different. The negative is that this instantaneous nature can also impact an event’s importance, a la Iran. You’re at the mercy of the global brain, and if the brain is distracted by a shinier object, you fade quickly.

There’s not much we can do about this phenomenon. We’re far past the point of no return. And, as I’ve pointed out, it isn’t necessarily a negative development. It simply made me stop and ponder the reality that, well, we don’t stop and ponder anymore. There’s a possibility that technology could be its own solution someday. Perhaps a product, or even entire market sector, will come along that will allow us to reconstruct online moments. So that when we land on Mars, or colonize the moon, or cure cancer, we’ll be able to reconstruct and refer back to our collective reaction. Rather than have it lost in an ether of tweets.

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  1. a friend said

    I enjoy your podcast. I just feel you are a very good-hearted person. It’s something …

  2. To set context: I’m reading your post in the few minutes I have between meetings, while simultaneously glancing at text messages and devouring a late lunch that followed a too early breakfast. In other words, I’m able to give your thoughts about the same amount of attention as the 100s of other messages and memes that have crossed my awareness today. And with that as context, what I’m about to say sounds ironic at best and hypocritical at worst:

    The rise (and, arguably, myth) of continuous partial attention fueled by blogs, Twitter, YouTube, texting, Facebook and other “social” media is an enormous (although not only) threat to critical thinking and – I’m not being hyperbolic here – American economic, political, and social strength.

    I’ve become so passionate about this issue that I’ve decided to write a book on the topic. . . .

    . . . when, of course, I can find time between Tweet-stalking, actual work, and all those other shiny objects that attract my attention.

    Thanks, Carla, for pausing to reflect and reminding us to do the same.

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