Opinion

Facebook and Twitter are turning my mind to mush

Facebook, Twitter, and other addictive websites and applications make it hard to read books or finish projects without dipping back into the hypnosis-inducing well of Internet stuff that somehow feels like important work but is basically stories about bears stealing cars.

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Facebook is turning my mind to mush and I don’t like it. The IQ drop is palpable, and it’s really beginning to get on my nerves.

I’m no Internet critic. Nor am I some dude who’s nostalgic for the romantic bygone era of steam engines and Fatty Arbuckle.

My dad’s a digital design engineer, and some of my earliest childhood memories involve making cardhouses out of computer punchcards. I had an Atari 2600. In high school, I co-ran a BBS, using a dedicated phone line. (If that term’s unfamiliar to you, Google it and be astounded by how cool I was.) I founded a daily online magazine in college (1999), and obtained my first post-college job at The Christian Science Monitor’s relatively new online division.

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So I know the Internet fairly well, and I’m comfortable not merely with its conventions, but also with its roots.

But neither am I a lifelong computer and/or Internet advocate, because it’s always struck me as something that isn’t “good” or “bad” any more than books, or radio, or television are good or bad. The Web is a medium. It’s a powerful new medium, and it can be filled with wonderful, thought-provoking information and context – or videos of cats playing the piano poorly.

New mental software

Therefore it’s with more than a little regret that I have come to realize that Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and any number of other catchily named applications and websites are taking my mind, the ripe fruit of the Wisconsin public school system, and spoiling it like an abandoned banana.

Which is to say, maybe this stuff is actually bad. It’s certainly reprogramming me mentally, and I don’t like the new software that’s being installed.

I used to read constantly, but now it’s getting difficult to finish even entertaining, well-written books. It’s also getting hard to complete even short projects (like writing this column) without dipping back into the hypnosis-inducing well of Internet stuff that somehow feels like important work but is basically stories about bears stealing cars.

Friends to whom I used to write eight-page letters – with illustrations! maps! sometimes even different colors of ink! – are now just little tiny sparks in the great big information power surge that is perpetually pumping into my parietal lobe.

And instead of sending long, thoughtful letters or emails that actually have so much content that they both constitute and stimulate self-reflection, I post stupid little Facebook status updates from Minnesota:

James Norton is cleaning the gutters by choice, can’t believe I once considered myself a young person.”

“James Norton is goggling in horror at the squirrel that chewed through the screen in the pantry and is now eating one of his Fig Newtons.”

“James Norton cannot for the life of him remember to throw his used boxer shorts down the laundry chute, thereby putting his marriage on palpably thin ice.”

Mental note: Don't compare a baby to a big cinnamon roll

I can’t post anything serious – about news, politics, or science, for example – without someone, usually one of my uncles, popping up and pointing out that whatever it was somehow conclusively proves that global warming is fake.

And I can’t playfully mock other people’s updates, for fear that they take me seriously, or their grandparents take me seriously, or someone takes me seriously. If they do, I suddenly have to spend 45 minutes apologizing and backtracking just because I suggested that someone’s new baby looks like a big cinnamon roll.

The result is that I create and receive a constant flood of trivial information that is constricted by social norms to the point of being useless. We fear that anything we say, do, or depict ourselves doing online can be captured and distributed to whomever we would least like to receive it. And rightly so.

Friendships are slipping away

But the result is that we don’t really know our friends anymore; we know their masks. I have a “mere” 300 friends on Facebook, but many of them – no offense, “friends”! – are people I barely know.

Even the friends I’m very seriously attached to in real life sometimes feel like they’re slipping away, despite their electronic proximity – only an in-person visit to or from them really bridges the gap. The occasional vacation photos reveal very little. Facebook has stopped seeming like a way to connect, and has started feeling like a way to wean myself off of needing to connect, toward a life that is principally if not solely comprised of life online.

And that’s terrifying.

But maybe it shouldn’t be!

Maybe the sooner we can all be reconstituted as heads floating in oxygenated saline solution attached to cables with a really great connection to the world’s best gaming/social networking/imaginary shopping portal, the sooner we can stop worrying about all that other tiresome stuff – war, the environment, world hunger, the quest for knowledge, the meaning of life, etc. – that’s always getting us down.

Facebook is helping change us into a new, lesser species, a devolved pack of near-savages that would rather send text messages about werewolves than grow tomatoes in a garden or eat an entire civilized Sunday brunch without once checking email.

And I intend to quit it. At some point. In the near future. Before it’s too late – but hopefully not too much before, because there’s this great video of He-Man singing “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes that everybody needs to see.

James Norton is the coauthor of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin” and the founding editor of The Heavy Table.

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