Monday, January 20, 2014
The Opinion Pages|OP-ED COLUMNIST
Twitter-Bashing Bores - Roger Cohen, NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/opinion/cohen-twitter-bashing-bores.html?hpw&rref=opinion
LONDON — We live in the age of the Twitter-bashing bore. It’s not easy, being of a certain generation, to avoid the dinner conversation that veers into a lament about the short attention spans, constant device distraction, sad superficiality and online exhibitionism of a younger generation geared to life in 140 characters or less.
You have to duck under the table or at least bite your lip as yet another jeremiad about the depredations of social media unfurls. How the screen has taken over. How flirting is not what it used to be. How genuine experience is being lost. It is as if baby boomers had all fallen prey to some collective amnesia about the fact that our parents, equally, understood nothing about how we communicated, how we interacted, how we dated and how we mated.
They had no idea. We have no idea, either.
More things do not change than do. In the unchanging category falls the curmudgeonly tendencies of the aging, however open-minded they like to believe they are. Seduced by all the 60-is-the-new-40 babble, they fail to see that their irritation about Twitter, Snapchat and the rest is in essence irritation at the new, and that in their grumbling the most potent factors are incomprehension and sheer incapacity.
The onset of printing and the advent of the book certainly left monks seething in the seclusion of their cells, grumbling about how nothing could replace the experience of the illuminated manuscript for depth and seriousness, and how the vulgar masses would succumb to the ephemeral thrill of the printed page.
It was not so very long ago that the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé penned these words about uncut pages: “The uncut folding of the book still invites the kind of sacrifice that made the red edges of ancient tomes bleed; the introduction of a weapon or paper-knife, confirming appropriation.”
Well, we have survived printing, books and even uncut pages in them. We will survive Kindle, too, even if appropriation is now bloodless, no more than pressure on a button or a page-turning movement applied to a screen, the simulacra of physical gestures for a digital age.
The whole 140-character thing is, of course, a canard anyway. Worse, it is a betrayal of ignorance. The genius of Twitter is instantaneousness and compression. It is solipsistic, a form of narcissism, at the same time as being the ne plus ultra of outreach. Its essence is the link. Through links, tweets are in fact very long, so long that Twitter is a great way to waste time; in fact I hardly recall any longer how I wasted time before Twitter. It is also a great scattershot way to stumble on the unexpected or the enriching.
Repeat after me: Thou shalt not complain about social media or judge the habits of a generation you do not understand.
Remember, boomers, born, say, in the mid-1950s, that you were lucky, arriving midway between the atomic bomb and the release of the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” at the start of a postwar boom that would endure for decades, on the free side of the Iron Curtain, in a Europe embarking on the “ever closer union” that stopped the self-destruction of the first half of the 20th century, safe from the Nazi death factories, too late for the trenches, not too late for flower power, in time for the hippie trail to Kabul, and in line for the sexual sweet spot between the arrival of the Pill and the onset of AIDS. As Philip Larkin noted, “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three.”
Such luck could not but build forms of amnesia. Weren’t things always this good and love always this free? The distance between our parents’ generation that had known the war and our own insouciant band was not easy to bridge. We should not fall prey to new forms of amnesia when it comes to the Facebook generation.
Sure, screen addiction can be disconcerting. Philip Roth may well have been right when he told Le Monde last year that, “My prediction is that in 30 years, if not sooner, there will be just as many people reading serious fiction in America as now read Latin poetry. A percentage do. But the number of people who find in literature a highly desirable source of sustaining pleasure and mental stimulation is sadly diminished.”
But equally, I suspect, we have little notion of what the new forms of “sustaining pleasure” are and what unexpected fruit they will yield.
And we can always fall back on the unchanging truths, like these lines from Walter Benjamin I stumbled on the other day: “Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
They, too, in time will discover this. And if they don’t, that’s fine too.