As my wife, Mimi Johnson, and I were making plans to spend a few days in southeast Utah enjoying canyons and arches before I start my new job, she made a simple, but firm request: I needed to unplug. Yeah, I’m mostly wireless these days, but I knew what she meant: Put away the laptop, put away the iPhone (except to take photos). No blogging, no tweeting, no reading important or interesting links.
But yesterday morning before we left Salt Lake City, while I was leading the workshop that brought us to Utah, Bill Keller got Mimi all stirred up. And she hadn’t brought her laptop. She can’t post from her iPad to her blog (a really good blog; if you missed her post about me leaving newspapers last year, it’s worth catching up). She also can’t post to her blog from my laptop. So she commandeered my laptop last night (she knew I wasn’t going to be using it) to write a guest post for me. As you’ll see, she’s addressing an issue I might have written about anyway. Better that you get it from the best writer in our family:
It was with some reluctance yesterday that I pointed out Bill Keller’s latest column for the New York Times Magazine to my husband. I have been known to scold Steve for being too strident, especially when it comes to The Times’ paywall experiment and Mr. Keller’s opinions on social media. So I was relieved when Steve posted one amusing tweet on the column and then sighed, “I’ve written enough about Bill Keller.”
“Good,” I said. Good. And then I was the one who just couldn’t let it go. As my mother used to say, “I did not care for his tone.”
Even as he derided our social media conversations devolving into “snark,” he wrote, “Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and ‘Real Housewives.’” Even as he tried to temper with one hand by saying, “Twitter is a brilliant device — a megaphone for promotion, a seine for information, a helpful organizing tool for everything from dog-lover meet-ups to revolutions,” he just couldn’t stop himself from taking away with another: “Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation.”
In response to the Times blogger Nick Bilton’s well-reasoned post about his column, Mr. Keller offered that he “praised Twitter effusively.” No, I’d say his praise of Twitter was a perfunctory sop while his criticism of it was effusive. Why? Even though Mr. Keller understands the various tentacles of social media intellectually, emotionally he doesn’t like them. He is undoubtedly a sophisticated man, who must have realized long ago that change always brings loss as well as gain. Indeed, he mentions his own father’s regret at the passing of the slide rule in favor of the calculator. But, as the ancient saying goes, “the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” Mr. Keller recognizes the social media caravan and he does not like it one bit. So how does he bark his disapproval? By trying to make those who embrace it feel stupid for doing so.
Mr. Keller quoted an email from a UCLA professor named Robert Bjork, “Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens.” Mr. Keller then went on to write, “My inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”
That’s where Mr. Keller is quite wrong. And that’s the point I couldn’t let go. It has been my privilege to get to know some incredibly gifted young journalists in the last year. These are people who not only are thinking and reflecting; they are doing. They look at each new development in social media with the questions, “How can I use this? How will this make my work faster, truer, more meaningful?” They are fearless about experimenting, trying, perfecting. They are not afraid to fail because they know with each failure they learn something that will deepen their knowledge and sharpen their skills.
When Andy Carvin began tweeting about the unrest in the Middle East and retweeting information from participants on the ground, for the first time in my 50+ years I finally began to understand the intricate, interwoven problems throughout that area. Not only did he bring meaning to me, he let me hear the voices of the people involved. And, when Andy tweeted about his grief that his friend and colleague Mohammed Nabbous died filming video of a firefight, I felt more empathy than any New York Times story ever produced from me.
Meanwhile, Mr. Keller gets social media. He just doesn’t want it. And he’d really be pleased if no one else wanted it either. Then he could go back to the way things used to be.
There is a wonderful, and exquisitely painful scene, in the old movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The young doctor is pushed to the point of exasperation by his father and finally erupts, “You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs!”
I do not think Mr. Keller, or any of our generation of journalists, needs to lie down and die before those coming behind can move forward. But I do think the newspaper industry will continue to founder because people who think like old fogies won’t get the hell out of the way. And really, no matter how loud and long they bark, eventually the young people coming up will roll right over them, even as they howl. Their caravan is full of ideas: wonderful, useful, meaningful ideas, and the problem solving skills to make them happen.
Mr. Keller opened his piece with the lament that allowing his young daughter to have a Facebook page was akin to handing her a crack pipe. If she’s a smart, savvy young woman, she’ll do what every generation before her has done – she’ll use these tools in ways her father never dreamed. So get off her back, Mr. Keller.
Get off all our backs.
Buttry addition: I couldn’t resist another tweet about Keller this morning. Please understand if I am slow in approving comments. I will be out enjoying canyons today. And I’ve promised to unplug.