Twitter, Instagram, Vine: Fast track to nitwit

There are those who would call our social media streams a new form of consciousness and the future of computing. I would suggest they spend more time interacting with actual human beings.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

I work in a profession that is notorious for employing people that (for lack of a more politically correct way of phrasing it) are woefully deficient in the art of human interaction.

Technologists, programmers and engineers are usually introverts. Sure, you get the occasional "social" type that can bridge the gap or interface between pure engineer and business/sales, but for the most part, a lot of us lack the essential social skills that just plain "normal" people posess. 

Over the decades we have been called "dorks", or "nerds" or "geeks", or just plain socially awkward. There are now better, more clinical ways to describe some of us.

Research in the last several years has shown that there is a link between the tech disciplines and what is now generally referred to as the Autism Spectrum, which encompasses a wide range of pervasive and neurodevelopmental conditions.

One of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) that has been getting a lot of attention in the tech sector and the media lately is what used to be clinically diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.

You all know the signs of Asperger's when you see it because the many of the very brightest and most talented of us seem to have it.

Albert Einstein, for example, was said to have exhibited many of the telltale signs of the condition, long before the clinical diagnosis was formalized by the medical community.

Sheldon Cooper on CBS's The Big Bang Theory may not have "come out" with an Asperger diagnosis, and while the character's creators have all but denied it, he might as well be the Autism Spectrum's poster child.

Those of us who work in technology all know at least one Sheldon Cooper. Some of us have them as family members, as children, and as spouses.

While not considered by most clinicians to be residing on the Autism Spectrum itself, Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a comorbid condition (one of several, which includes anxiety and depression) that is frequently part of an overall ASD diagnosis and may have genetic links to conditions that reside on the Autism Spectrum. 

At the age of 40 I was formally diagnosed with Attention Defecit Disorder. This wasn't so much a surprise to me but a confirmation after many years of suspecting I was different from other people that my brain simply functions a certain way.

It was a relief, really, because as I was getting older, I became more and more frustrated with myself in the way I was interacting with people and I didn't know why I was behaving a certain way or understand how to deal with it. 

Those of us that have ADD see it as a both a curse and also a gift. While many of us find difficulty in multitasking and staying organized -- something that can actually cripple certain career paths for those of us in tech -- a side effect of ADD is "hyperfocus" which is a condition in which one puts all of their attention into completing a single task.

I'm able to harness my hyperfocus by creative outlets in my writing and problem solving skills that I leverage at work.

Unfortunately, it also makes me the butt of jokes when I'm out socializing with my wife, friends and colleagues.

Also Read: Have we all become a bunch of anxious, sleep-deprived irritable stress-heads?

Conversations that happen around me in groups are simply background noise, even though my brain is actively processing it (along with a million other things) in my subconscious.

It's not uncommon for me to regurgitate something someone else has said minutes before, believing that the thought or the idea was my own, and then being told I was simply repeating something.

This is the curse of having a short attention span and experiencing life in bursts. I would never wish this even on my worst enemy.

The only way you can defeat this condition is simply to spend more time with people and less in front of your computers and tech toys. You will never "cure" ADD or something much more serious like Asperger's, but by forcing youself into social situations the more you get better at "faking" normalcy, and you learn to compensate for your problems and use your weaknesses as strengths.

Which gets us into the actual subject matter of this article.

Like many of you, I utilize any number of social media tools. When you are a writer, having the technology to reach out to your readership and to engage them directly is a powerful one.

But as I use these tools more and more, the more I feel they should be used in moderation, particularly if you have autism spectrum tendancies, because they absolutely will bring out the worst aspects of your personality if you are psychologically or neurologically inclined in that direction.

And while I have absolutely no scientific data to back this up whatsoever, I believe that their heavy use fosters a society that is short on attention and devalues long-form discourse, even for those that do not have Autism Spectrum conditions.

In short, our obsession with what some people are calling the "Lifestream" is leading us towards an entire society of Technology Augmented Autism.

In a fit of irony, I summed this up very recently in a Tweet:


This was precipitated after an evening I had spent messing around with Vine, Twitter's latest "micro-vlogging" service for the iPhone.

After shooting a few test videos, and realizing I had wasted so much precious time trying to create a profound video message in a six second burst, it dawned on me: We're spending too much freaking time with these microblogging or "stream" services, and not enough with other human beings and appreciating art in what I refer to as "long form".

You know, stuff like... Books. Articles longer than 300 words. Film. Actual photography. Face to face conversation. Hell, even phone calls and email. Human empathy.

I'm not sure why we are becoming obsessed with trying to express ourselves in tiny amounts.

You cannot have a meaningful conversation with another human being on Twitter. You cannot produce photographic art of any value within the limitations of a service like Instagram, and you sure as hell cannot produce film as art with Vine.

Also Read: Streaming is replacing the Web as we know it

If services like these are "Lifestreams", what quality of "life" are we really talking about, anyway? How is any of this an expression of culture? It's certainly not anything that has duration or long term value.

In 100 years, will people be thinking Tweets, Instagram photos and Vine bursts are works of art and are worth preservation? No, because they are considered to be completely disposable. They are forgotten just as quickly as they go viral.

And I can assure you, unlike printed media, the record of these things are unlikely to exist in a century hence unless active measures are taken to preserve them.

I will grant it that as a communications medium for bandwidth constrained environments, and for the rapid dissemination of important news developments, these services have a use. Heck, even I use Twitter and Instagram. A lot.

But they should never be considered a replacement for traditional forms of communication, and we need to balance the use of these tools with real art, real films, large format digital photography, real talking, listening to real music, having real sex, eating real food and engaging with real humans.

And savoring our moments. Not disposing of them and waiting for the next one to "stream". Because if it has to be done in 140 characters, 612 pixels or lasts six seconds long -- you're doing it wrong.

Is the "Lifestream" the future of human interaction or simply technology augmented autism? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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