Tuesday 10 March 2009

Just because we can - must we ?

After a fairly unproductive day (the reasons for which will become clear presently) Matron feels another rant of a technophobic nature coming on. The trigger is Twitter, apparently the latest craze in online communication sweeping the globe.

Now, Matron has so far resisted tweeting, largely - as her friends will confirm - because she is physically incapable of saying anything in 140 characters. But today her boss attended the FT Digital Media Conference (which was Twitter streamed, apparently) and suggested that the same should be done during an upcoming event that Matron co-organises.

Twittering an event - Matron has learned - means that the conference delegates post live tweets even as they listen to what the speakers have to say. Highly sophisticated and immensely useful for non-attendees, for sure, but Matron, who is a frequent speaker at conferences herself and already fights homicidal urges when she has to talk to a line-up of laptops while their owners are checking their e-mails, can't help thinking that we are loosing some valuable social skills in the process. Like the ability to show someone a minimum amount of professional courtesy.

But in order to be able to comment on an informed basis, Matron duly succumbed and today opened a Twitter account. Not to tweet, never fear, but see what it's all about by following the tweets of the ubiquitous Stephen Fry, famous technophile-in-chief, who probably did more to promote the service than even the site's owners.

Now, Matron is a great fan of Mr Fry, who is and always has been the thinking woman's crumpet. She likes his books, his films and TV series (including - much to her partner's chagrin -the fabulous QI), his readings of the Harry Potter books, which help her go to sleep every night, and his long rambling blessays (blog-essays) about nothing much in particular. So, by all accounts there could be worse impositions than reading his Twitter timeline. And fairly amusing it was too. It turns out that Stephen Fry is currently in New York after having spend a few weeks in Mexico to film. Just over an hour ago he has taken receipt of his new Kindle e-book reader, about which he is very excited and no doubt he will treat his followers to a detailed description and review of his latest gadget before the day is out.

Because he is Stephen Fry, he now has more than half a million of them (followers, that is, not e-book readers, although Matron won't vouch for the latter, given his level of geekness), all of whom presumably join Matron in her admiration of the man and like the fact that he shares so much about his daily life with them. He even regularly responds to their tweets making this a two-way conversation of a kind that ordinary humans do not often get the chance to have with a bona-fide celebrity.

But let us consider two points: first, in the case of lesser mortals (i.e. almost all people who are not Stephen Fry or Barack Obama), what is the point of much of the mindless drivel some people put on there? Matron can see the allure for your average extrovert of announcing to the world that they spent their Sunday afternoon putting up shelves, but who, in the name of Merlin, wants to read about it?

Secondly, and much as it pains her to admit it, it can't be much fun to actually BE AROUND Stephen Fry in the flesh when he is in one of his Twittering moods. Matron imagines it a bit like having lunch with the high octane city banker (a dying species, of course, but hey) who - instead of talking to his lunch date - constantly makes mobile phone calls to other people. "That's what the OFF button is there for, mate!"

Of course, like blogging, Twitter can be enourmously useful for distributing information around the globe in next to no time at all. It is well known that the plane crash landing in the Hudson River was first reported on Twitter. Citizen journalism at its best which, as was said at the FT Digital Media Conference apparently, it could render news organisations wholly redundant.

It can also be a force for good, again personified by Mr Fry, who blacked out his Twitter picture in support of the New Zealand Internet Blackout organised in protest against the notice and disconnection laws for the purpose of enforcing copyright infringments recently adopted by the New Zealand government.

So, Matron does not so much object to the technology and the way it is used per se, but to the effect it has on the life of the average twittering individual. In particular, she objects to the time-wasting properties of this and most other "killer apps". In the two hours she spent virtually following Mr. Fry across two continents, what else could she have done? Write that overdue learned article for a start. Or go out for a walk in that rare-as-hens-teeth English sunshine. Or call the friends that she vowed she would definitely call this week, or else. But she hasn't. Instead she was glued to the screen for yet a few hours more (and, of course, it is not lost on her that she has now wasted another hour or so with this rant) without really achieving all that much. Apart from teenagers, students and silver surfers, who has that sort of time?

During Matron's misspent youth, in the pre-modern, feminist world of the 1980s, the - only half-joking - answer to the question "Why do men pee standing up?" would be "Because they can!"

But just because we can - must we?


  1. Well, quite (on all counts... Mr Fry is arguably *the* Renaissance Man of our times, and it is immensely rude to pay more attention to one's virtual conversations than to the physical ones happening at the same time).

    I clung, for years, to the belief that Stephen Fry - though a genius in so many areas - was at least more of a fuddy-duddy Luddite (Fuddy-Duddite?) than a technocrat like me. Imagine my depression on learning that he has achieved, more or less as a hobby or incidental pastime, a level of expertise which makes mine look a definite "B-, could do better".

    A colleague of mine, being French, manages to combine a level of technical competence which, anywhere else in Europe, would be seen as geeky, with a very shrewd eye for the social consequences of technology. He puts it like this; with any technology, we start by asking "can we do it?"... and only having found that we can, do we start asking "should we do it?".

    Our monkey heritage is not easily overcome.

  2. ho hum. I too have just succumbed to the twitter fad - though I'm justifying it as 'research' into whether twitter and privacy can in any way co-habit. We shall see.

    If you're inclined, and if all has gone according to plan, you may find you can follow me by the name of futureidentity... though, this being an experiment, I can't promise there will be anything very exciting in my twitterings!