I’m old enough to remember when Sesame Street first appeared on public television in late 1969. After its wildly popular first season, some critics complained that the program’s appealing structure–fast-paced short segments–would eventually destroy children’s ability to remain focused; they would grow up accustomed to receiving new stimuli every minute or so and would eventually become unable to learn any other way. Any activity that required more than a few minutes of concentration would become beyond their reach, and their teachers would have to be, above all, entertainers.
As far as I know, that particular doomsday did not occur–not in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, and not in the first 15 years of this century.
However, I fear that doomsday is upon us now, in the age of Twitter. Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams, and Noah Glass were born in the 1970’s, which means they were in the program’s target audience during its golden years and probably grew up watching Sesame Street. In creating Twitter, they have fulfilled the prophecies of the program’s fiercest critics. They invented the tool that has turned us into exactly what Sesame Street‘s critics predicted: a populace unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes (unless we are in actual danger).
Exhibit A would be Donald Trump (known in another context as “Individual A”). Trump bounces from pillar to post, and Twitter is his favorite means of communication.
I’m afraid that I might be Exhibit B, because I have become addicted to Twitter. At least 10 or 20 times a day I check the posts of the 1,578 people I follow. I often retweet items to my 10,200 followers. During the day, I unspool the threads of Trump’s fiercest critics like Seth Abramson (@sethabramson) and Scott Dworkin (@funder), and I delight in the snark of The Hoarse Whisperer (@horsewisperer).
But my addiction is worse because I also follow my old employer, The PBS NewsHour (@Newshour), CNN (@CNN), Jake Tapper of CNN (@jaketapper), Maggie Haberman of the New York Times (@maggieNYT), Jane Mayer (@janemayernyer), Joy Reid of MSNBC (@JoyAnnReid), the AP (@AP), investigative reporter Jack Gillum (@jackgillum), The National Review (@NRO), neo-conservative and Never-Trumper Bill Kristol (@BillKristol), reliable liberal David Axelrod (@Davidaxelrod), Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien), Axios (@axios), and others who tweet about politics. I also follow a few actual politicians like Senator Tim Kaine (@timkaine), Representative Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff), and Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi).
Naturally, I am following a bunch of education sites: The Hechinger Report (@hechingerreport), Education Week (@educationweek), Chalkbeat (@chalkbeat), the 74 (@the74), The Network for Public Education, (@Network4pubEd), Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch), Randi Weingarten of the AFT (@rweingarten), Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA (Lily_NEA), conservative Democrat Whitney Tilson (@whitneytilson), and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (@arneduncan).
There’s a real downside to our national obsession with Twitter and other forms of instant gratification: We are inundated to the point of exhaustion with news, trivial news, and fake news. In my view (and in the opinion of many others), any one of a dozen of Trump’s actions could (should?) have led to–at the very least–his censure by Congress, but the full out fire hose of incidents and lies seem to have overwhelmed our capacity for outrage and public action about any one action.
With our heads and brains in a constant spin, we are paralyzed. Can we break the addiction and take back our country?
If you have suggestions for ways for me to kick the habit, my Twitter handle is @John_Merrow.
Ironically and sadly, the only sure way to get my attention is via Tweet.