Is 140 characters really the best we’re doing?


Today’s technology is more powerful than ever, and has opened up vast new channels for sharing and exploring new ideas.  Everyone has a voice, and content has exploded on topics from the meaningful to the cute but perhaps mundane (see 19 photos of dogs playing in snow from our friends at Buzzfeed).  Just while writing this blog, I’ve found myself distracted about 15 times by content across the internet.  And I know I’m not alone here.  It leads me to wonder, with social media and everything it brings, where are we headed as a society?  And is it good for us, or will it serve as a distraction from the meaningful, and cause us to struggle to find the next advancement in science and technology? Are we distracting ourselves, both as producers and consumers?

Not more than a generation or two ago, our country’s brightest minds set out to work on some of the most challenging and complex problems man’s imagination could think up.  In the span of a decade from about 1963 to 1972, the Apollo program accomplished more to advance science than anything else in human history.  With its singular focus, NASA amazed the nation (and the world) as the first men walked on the moon.

Since that time, advances in computing have provided us the internet and given us access to new capabilities that those NASA scientists could only dream of.  Some advances have been nothing short of life-altering.  The cell phone (ie smart phone) and the many tools it offers have transformed the world.  Emergency services have improved, remote villagers have established text-message based banking, and countless conveniences have emerged in every day life (my favorite is, without question, Amazon Prime).  But can we be doing better?

What value do we get from 140 characters? Why do we allow ourselves to be consumed by these quick bits of information? And why have so many bright people been incentivized to produce for these companies that only add to the endless ways to consume information?   It seems every smart engineer is trying to capitalize on the astronomical valuations of these companies.  There’s even the term Unicorn for some of these companies that have a $1Bn valuation (and often not a single dollar of profit).  I hope we can innovate again in the real world and not just online.  Fortunately, some visionary entrepreneurs are starting to rethink what innovation means, and we’re seeing a re-introduction of creative, risk-taking ventures that may bring a dialogue on what it means to be innovative.  SpaceX and BlueOrigin are just two of those companies, whose celebrity founders (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) are setting the stage to bring the digital and real world back together again.

In the weeks ahead, I hope we can explore what social media has done for us as a society, both good and bad.  I hope we can explore the rabbit holes we often find ourselves in while online.  I hope we can connect how social media relates to (and will have an impact on) advances in other fields.  And I firmly hope we can learn as a society how to be responsible consumers of these media.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a video of the launch of the first reusable rocket to successfully land following a launch.


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2 Responses to Is 140 characters really the best we’re doing?

  1. Geoff Irwin says:

    “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” – JFK, Sept. 12, 1962, Rice University Address.

    I think JFK would agree with your questioning of whether we can do better. I too think we can do better and am excited to see what SpaceX, BlueOrigin, Google, and countless others do. There is no price that can be put on the potential benefits associated with what these companies are doing (ex. providing internet to those who’ve never had access before because the infrastructure is there, and thereby opening up learning channels, possibly to the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk). It is tough, however, for me to question the value of 140 characters because of how value is defined by each individual. You are right, no doubt, right to question the value of 140 characters and I’m hoping to understand the answer better myself this semester; however, the value of those 140 characters through each persons lens will change — how many users are there out there, and what are the common lenses that they share… that will be an interesting conversation.

    Great post!

  2. sydhavely says:

    Nicely framed argument about merits and downsides of social media. Twitter is a good place to start as it tries to re-invent its relevance, all but ignored until the Arab Spring thanks to CNN. You end with relevant questions that indeed the class will try to tackle. Great start.

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