Twitter and Pandora’s Box

Yesterday the Ottawa Senators hockey team fired their coach – and announced his departure via Twitter. Today seems like a good time to diverge from the travel dialogue we have been having and talk technology, starting with Twitter. I’m not used to seeing it used for important announcements like that.

My wife was asking about Twitter on Sunday; someone had suggested she needed an account. I told her the basics, adding that since she has a business Facebook account she didn’t need to tweet. I have a business Twitter account, but keep forgetting to share anything. Except this blog, of course, which is posted automatically.

Since the inception of Twitter I have questioned its usefulness while admiring its immediacy. It is an art to say anything of substance in 140 characters or less. And I see it as once again lowering discourse to the lowest common denominator: many people seem to no longer want depth, to no longer be willing to take the time to learn; 140 characters suits them just fine.

I know you can include links for further depth, that photos can be tweeted and you can “broadcast” to a greater audience using hashtags. But do we really need to communicate so little to so many?

Twitter has both the strength and weakness of immediacy. There are no filters. That was problematic in October when a lone gunman attacked Canada’s parliament buildings in Ottawa. The situation was understandably chaotic for peaceful Canada. The entire downtown core of the city was locked down as a precaution, just in case there was a full-fledged terrorist assault underway.

We know now that was not the case. But in the absence of official statements, twitter filled the void. (There were no official statements because those in charge wanted to get their facts straight. I can only conclude that they are like me and somewhat old-fashioned.) On Twitter there were reports of second and third gunmen, of possible snipers on the rooftops, of a second attack at a shopping mall. All of those, some picked up and repeated by the news media, turned out to be false. My guess is the tension level would have been significantly lower without Twitter fuel for the fire that day. It was not an example of progress at its finest.

Bemoaning technological change though is somewhat silly, so I’m not going to do it. No-one has ever figured out how to stuff the genie back into his lamp. When Pandora’s Box has been opened it is too late to wonder “what if?” Which is why I am somewhat bemused by those who are campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons; it strikes me as a futile waste of time.

It is not that I am in favour of such weapons, but how can the knowledge of how to make them be removed as the stockpiles are destroyed? And certainly that would have to be the aim – no point in getting rid of the stuff if people are just going to turn around and make more. As far as we know, nuclear weapons are at present solely in the hands of nation-states, who work very hard at making sure the number of members in their nuclear club isn’t expanding and at preventing non-states from building or purchasing their own nuclear arsenal.

This particular technological genie isn’t going back into the bottle; if the nations of the world don’t maintain their monopoly, then there are those of less than good will who would be delighted to join the nuclear club. It would become the stuff of a James Bond film, as criminal organizations (or maybe corporations) worked to become the first with nuclear weapons.

It seems like nuclear weaponry is a long way from Twitter, but I see a similarity. Once the change happens there is no turning back the clock, no matter how appealing it would be.

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