The "vast wasteland" expands

3 December 2009  • 

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

—Newton Minow, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, from a speech given on
May 9, 1961, to the National Association of Broadcasters

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo, Walt Kelly, 1970

Richard AnthesNote to readers: This article was drafted a few days before the mid-November attack on computer servers at the University of East Anglia. I believe some of the points made below about the dangers of cyberspace and e-mail are well illustrated by that event, including the misinterpretations and/or misrepresentations, confusion, and heated rhetoric that resulted from some of the carelessly worded and inappropriate e-mails, including ones that were more than a decade old.
—Richard Anthes, UCAR president

It has been almost 50 years since Newton Minow issued his critical analysis of television's daily drivel. At first, the vast wasteland expanded only slowly, limited by the lack of mobility of TV sets, the number of stations on the air, and, most importantly, by the one-way nature of this communication medium. However, in the 1980s, a revolution in public communication began. Today many portals to the wasteland extend beyond our TV sets. They envelop us day and night, from the time we wake and rush to the computer to the time we fall asleep clutching our smartphones. And the portals are now two-way, allowing several billion people to contribute simultaneously to the global wasteland.

Of course, there is no turning back this revolution. E-communication (e-com) provides untold benefits to countless people, and today's children will never know a world without it. My concern is that, unless we are careful, the wasteland will swamp valuable aspects of our nature, and the qualities of concentration and judgment that are critical to good science, and to our humanity, will gradually wither.

When I was introduced to e-mail in the mid-1980s through a system called OMNET, I thought it was the best thing to come along in a long time. As someone who dislikes the telephone for various reasons, I could now respond to people when I felt like it rather than when the phone rang, or I could ignore them altogether if I so chose (which wasn't feasible in the days before caller ID and voice mail). The potential savings in time, paper, and money promised by e-mail were obvious. Aside from the difficulty in finding power and telephone connections and the modest cost of OMNET, I found that this early e-com was a useful way to do business and stay in touch with a few people I really cared about.

Today we have the opportunity to communicate and connect with millions of people instantaneously and without much thought, effort, or financial cost (though I argue below that there are much greater costs of other kinds). E-mail has now taken a back seat among many college students to even faster and more direct e-com methods-Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, texting, and the like. Inexpensive mobile phones allow us to talk and text incessantly while we participate in meetings, watch sports events, surf the Web, sit in the classroom, study in the library, or-inviting catastrophe- drive our cars. We can tell all of our hundreds or even thousands of "friends" and "followers" what we are thinking, doing, and feeling, virtually anytime and anywhere.

Who could argue with this remarkable set of technological achievements? What's wrong with the opportunity to communicate and connect with anyone, anytime, about anything?

Instant, easy, and careless

The telegraphic nature of ecom means that little or no thought, time, or care needs to be put into the communication. Messages, opinions, arguments, and accusations can be hastily composed and sent, perhaps in anger or under the influence, without care for the damage that they can do to the feelings and reputations of people (including those far beyond the primary target of the message, since e-mails are so easily forwarded). Once the send button is pushed, there is no chance for retrievals or second thoughts.

The sheer volume of e-com is another issue. On one recent weekday, I received 157 e-mails. Only about 30 were useful and welcome. Even with the help of e-mail filters, it takes a good deal of time to separate the truly important messages from those that are mildly interesting, worthless but benign, and dangerous or salacious. In some ways, e-com is too fast, too convenient, and too cheap.

The upside to this abundance is that we can now keep in touch more frequently and consistently with a wider circle of friends, family, and colleagues. For all its power and popularity, however, I believe e-com tends to crowd out forms of communication that are arguably more thoughtful and personal. When was the last time you received a nice, long handwritten letter with a postmark from a favorite distant place?

What about blogging?

Many of my scientific colleagues write extensive daily blogs on research or other topics. Some of these blogs are no doubt interesting and/or amusing, and science-oriented blogs can give the public a closer look at how scientists approach climate change and other important topics. Yet a lay reader might come away from some blogs thinking that science is little more than ranting and ad hominem attacks! Once again, the vast wasteland-here consisting of thoughtless commentary and personal vendettas-threatens to swallow up the potential value of e-com.

Even the best blog takes time to write and edit. Given the length of some blogs, and the potentially addictive quality of e-com in general (see below), one wonders how much time a scientist-author can devote to blogging while remaining productive as a researcher. If someone can do both well, more power to him or her. However, writing a blog is certainly no substitute for carrying out original research, backing it up with data and reasoning, and summarizing that research in a publication with independent peer review.

Feeding the addiction

Perhaps worst of all, e-com becomes addictive. As psychologist B.F. Skinner showed, the most insidious kind of reward system is variable reinforcement- when one is never quite sure whether a reward is coming or not, but remains eternally hopeful. The instant gratification and occasional pleasure of e-com feeds back on itself. If we go more than a few hours without e-com contact, we might just miss something important. If we don't tell others what we are doing every minute, we must be unimportant, or perhaps others will think so. The addiction leads to more distraction and gradual loss of the ability to concentrate.

An example from my own recent vacation: I look up from my book after 15 minutes and wonder what new information has arrived while I was reading. I want to check the latest stock market results, weather forecast, poll, hostage status, airport delay, or political scandal, or simply find out whether someone from my family or workplace has answered my e-mail from an hour ago. I know I shouldn't do it-I can always wait another hour-but just one quick peek won't hurt, will it? Concentration and focus become more and more difficult as the minutes since my last e-com fix count up. Finally, and knowing full well I shouldn't, I click on my iPhone and plunge into the fray again. An hour later I have forgotten my book and my train of thought.

In the workplace, the pressure to keep on top of things only feeds the addictive nature of e-com. One can try going for set periods each day without checking e-mail, in order to carve out time for productive, uninterrupted thought. But addictions are notoriously difficult to break, and besides, the most recent e-mail could always be the most important one.

Gains and losses

I worry a bit about sounding like Andy Rooney, my favorite curmudgeon. But on this matter I am hardly alone. In his new book The Tyranny of E-Mail, literary critic John Freeman argues that e-mail makes us lazier, lonelier, and less articulate. "The difference between a smiley face and an actual smile is too large to calculate," he writes.

To be sure, there are many jewels scattered across the expanding wasteland of e-com. The Web is rapidly becoming a more efficient platform for scientific review and publication, in a movement often called Web 2.0. Open Access policies such as the one recently instituted by UCAR will help streamline and accelerate research. And along with other institutions, NCAR is conveying its science to many thousands of people through Twitter and Facebook. For example, "fans" of the HIPPO campaign (HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations) can watch every step of the NSF/NCAR Gulfstream-V through photos, maps, and reports on Facebook. Such a project would be far more opaque to the general public only a few years ago.

As these and other new communications tools grow in our community, it is vital that we pay attention to what e-com can take from us, as well as what it can give us. True concentration, focus, and insight can't be obtained in a few seconds here and there between text messages and e-mails.

In the 2 November issue of Newsweek, an essay by Julia Baird entitled "The Devil Loves Cell Phones: Silence isn't just golden, it's heavenly" notes that in the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully engaged and listening. The Devil must be dancing indeed over the ever-growing wasteland of faux communication. And today, unlike in 1961, we can't blame it on the TV moguls. We are part of the problem as well as the solution. 


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