Tweeting and Thinking

What Does It Take to Do Both?

Bill Keller recently weighed in on something many of us worry about:  will the intellectual development of our children be stimulated or stunted by Facebook?

As editor of The New York Times, he is in the thick of the new media.  As the Times uses them all, he can hardly be against them.  But he correctly notes that all new means for communicating and storing information have collateral effects.  The invention of the printing press meant then that people had little need to memorize texts.  More recently, GPS devices have come to mean we don’t have to think how to get where we are going or remember how we got there.  Can having so many friends on Facebook, he worries, prevent relationships from deepening?

He cites Robert Bjork at U.C.L.A., an expert in memory and learning, who had noted that students who use the Excel spreadsheet often don’t pick up patterns in the data they process.  “Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happen.”  He puts it succinctly:  “We are not recording devices.”  (See, “The Twitter Trap.”)

That’s an important point.  If we don’t struggle to solve problems or make difficult decisions, do we really possess the information we have access to.  If we don’t reflect on the knowledge we have, do we actually have it?  Can we own our thoughts without engaging and questioning them?

The problem isn’t the technology.  Facebook can be a reasonable way for friends to keep in touch.  Twitter gets news out quickly.  But all the social media can reinforce and amplify many of our more troubling urges:  the craving for distraction, the pressure to follow the crowd, the wish to feel important, to know something without having bothered to check it out.  And we can all too easily stay in that place of impulse, reaction, easy certainty and superficial self-importance.

So the solution is not in controlling our children’s access to social media.  Even if we tried to stop them, we would only succeed in making them seem more attractive and inevitable.  We have to make sure that other experiences are provided, activities that involve more prolonged and sustained thinking – conversations, follow up reflections, doubts, discussions, debates, puzzles, questions.

We have to engage with them about their experience of the world, the meanings they detect, the doubts they have about what hey are told, the events that puzzle them.  If we can succeed in prying them away from the devices that more easily capture their attention, we can offer the possibility of thinking together.