Wednesday, March 15, 2017


There is a notion in economics called skill-biased technical change, where the innovation favors certain forms of labor (those who have the required skills) and is pernicious to other forms of labor (those who lack the skills).  Economics itself may be biased in that innovations of this sort are viewed as productive overall (GDP goes up as a consequence of the innovation).   Not considered are innovations that are like addictive drugs, with wide uptake and deleterious consequences.  Of course, any such innovation will also have its productive use.  So it is hard to have a critical discussion about such innovations as the defenders will focus on the productive use only, while the critics will limit attention to the deleterious consequences. 

I can't claim neutrality on this.  Having lived my adulthood as an academic, I would find it desirable if the rest of the population embraced the mindset of a academics to some degree.  I described this mindset at some length in a post from a couple of years ago called The Professor Mind.  I began with the definition and expanded on the theme from there.

Blurting, the word in my title, is antithetical to the professor mind.  Little kids are prone to do it.  One of the earliest lessons in school is that kids must raise their hands and wait for the teacher to call on them.  Doing that rather than simply shouting out whatever is on the kid's mind requires some discipline and self-restraint.  Blurting, in contrast, is immediate and instinctual.

In the language of Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, the professor mind is about thinking slow.  I like to say it is about producing a narrative.  That is an iterative process.  One tries a little bit of the story, sees if it makes sense and if it fits the situation.  When that fails one has to go back and try something else.  Sometimes one doesn't see the failure until different bits of the story are put together.  It requires patience to develop a full and coherent narrative.  Part of the professor mind is developing that sense of patience.

Most of the research that Kahneman relies on in making his argument was gathered before smart phones, social networking, and micro blogging sites such as Twitter came into wide usage.  That people will think fast some of the time is human nature.  The issue is the balance between thinking fast and thinking slow.  Has the technology changed that balance toward the thinking fast side?  Has it reduced our impulse control?  Has it made us less critical in our thinking by not perceiving the need to think slow?

While the answers to these questions may seem obvious (yes to each one of them) I want to make a case for the technology to be neutral this way.    To make that case let me begin with this humorous story about Adlai Stevenson the candidate for President.

A supporter once called out, "Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!" And Adlai Stevenson answered, "That's not enough. I need a majority." 

Some years later, then President Nixon coined the term silent majority.  At the time people's opinions were available only to friends and family, either via face to face discussion or by correspondence that was closed to the rest of the world.  The silent majority probably wasn't totally silent.  But outsiders couldn't learn their views in a direct manner.  

The technology is neutral argument, then, is that most of what we are observing is in the form of "composition effects" produced by that majority who used to be invisible but no longer are.  

Let me say here that I don't buy this argument as the whole story, but I think it is worth advancing because it surely is some of the story.   However, there is a different part of the story where those with the professor mind nonetheless resort to blurting as a consequence of social media.  One prominent example, a case that roiled my campus, is the Steven Salaita story

In his formal statement at the news conference, Salaita said his “deep dismay” at the number of people killed had fueled tweets he described as “passionate and unfiltered”.

It is not clear from the above whether Salaita would agree that he shouldn't have made those tweets.   One senses some remorse here, but just how far that goes I wouldn't want to judge.  However, I will say that 20 years earlier during the SCALE project we learned that some people would say things in an online forum that they never would say in a face to face setting.  The technology takes away a layer of inhibition.  One has to be schooled again, to add that layer back in and avoid making posts when in a highly emotional state.  Not everyone learns that lesson.  And those who do typically learn it the hard way.

But there is a different argument of the cognitive rather than the emotional kind that should get the most attention for the topic at hand.  This is about the always on nature of living online and the endless multiprocessing.  Each thread can get get only a little attention, nothing more.  Blurting works in this context.  Nothing else will.  Here the requirement for what works is that it produces a response.  There is no requirement that the response be thoughtful.  Metaphorically speaking, then, the technology makes us all zombies.  Multiprocessing is the drug that induces our impulses to overtake our judgment.

What then is a solution, even if it is only a partial solution?  I really don't know what will work for others.  I will content myself here to consider my own situation.

Back when I started this blog there was no Facebook, nor was there Twitter.  For nine months or more I was able to generate a post a day, on the order of 1500 words per post.  I did a lot of thinking slow then.  And I was quite busy with my campus job.  That blog writing was a restbit from the the remaining hours in the day, some of which was frustrating or inane. Blog writing was something that I looked forward to doing.

I now use Facebook a lot, and I tweet a daily rhyme.  I've learned to on occasion use the like button rather than write a lengthy response in a comment.  I still aim for substance in these outlets, but now brevity is much more of an imperative.  And, without a doubt, sometimes pith gives way to mere blurting.  Actually, often I can't tell the difference.

Yet I cling to the longer form that this post exemplifies too.  How much into the future I will do that, I don't know, but for now it seems necessary.  I do this entirely for me, not for the audience.  Indeed I can't tell whether there is any audience for this stuff at this point.   For myself, however, I still feel it imperative to produce the narrative and wish others felt this obligation as well.

In longer form pieces one now regularly sees the practice where certain tweets are cited.  Maybe that's an error, giving positive reinforcement to blurting when it actually should be discouraged.

Is there anything we might do that would encourage more deliberate thought and its expression in writing?  Being made aware of some such practice that was effective would make me enormously happy.  Lacking that, maybe it's time to reread Fahrenheit 451.  

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