Twitter attack: Crisis of disconnectivity

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard that Twitter was the victim of a cyberattack causing the popular social media to shut down for two hours last week. Well, if you live in the Land of Twitter you would have thought that it was 9/11 all over again. quoted one Twitter user as saying, "I was pretty upset, actually. It feels like a lifeline for me." "It's like my heart was gone" and "I felt so empty inside," came from several other Tweeters. "Naked" and "jittery" were also used to describe how Tweeters felt during the blackout. 

My first response to these people is "Puulleeeasse. Can't you get a life?"  Though Twitter has tremendous news and business value, my impression -- and I admit that I have no data to back up this claim -- is that Twitter is, for the vast majority of its users, no more than a nonstop electronic ticker of daily triviata,

But, as someone with a Ph.D. in Psychology, I have to wonder if they are experiencing a "disorder" I've recently recognized and labeled (it is not an established psychiatric condition).  At the lowest level, there is Disconnectivity Anxiety, which I define as a persistent and unpleasant condition characterized by worry and unease caused by periods of technological disconnection from others. 

Some Tweeters may have devolved to the next level related to our overly connected world, Disconnectivity Panic, which involves a frenzied and unfocused effort to get reconnected. Others may have sunk even lower to Disconnectivity Catatonia, psychological and physical paralysis due to loss of technological connection. Though a truly scary thought, the endpoint of this continuum may be Disconnectivity Suicide, where life is just not worth living without technological connection. Though I have never heard of it happening, I will predict (sadly) that it will occur in the near future if it hasn't already.

Technology shouldn't make people feel bad; to the contrary, it should be a tool for enhancing our lives. So I find it alarming to read about people getting depressed, anxious, or panicky because of their technology.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite; I have all the latest gadgets and I have my own issues with connectivity (but I'm not the one on the couch now). I'm not saying we should ban all this stuff. Twitter and other forms of real-time social media, like Facebook and MySpace, are powerful and potentially positive tools for communication and information dissemination.  At the same time, I do think that many people are losing perspective on how social media (and other emergent technologies) fit into their lives.

I agree with some of what Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at USC, told CNN about Twitter, "This is not just a hobby or an amusement or another accoutrement, it's actually deeply woven into their lives and is integral to their social interaction. So when it's cut off, it's a problem."  But I definitely don't buy this: "It's not worth analyzing whether these online connections are good or bad because the reality is that Twitter and Facebook are now an important part of our lives."

I see two problems in what he said. First, I'm concerned that, for most people, something that should be just a fun hobby can take on such a significant, and sometimes unhealthy, role in their emotional and social lives.

Second, it is for precisely this reason that these forms of social media must be analyzed and understood for their benefits and their costs. The reality is that our attachment-dare I say addiction-to technology has powerful ramifications-both positive and negative-that we simply have not had time to consider.

Think about how quickly technology has evolved. Twenty years ago we had telephones and faxes. The Internet was introduced to the public only 15 years ago.  Now we have SMS, Facebook, and Twitter. We haven't had time to catch our breaths with the rapid pace of technological development, much less give careful consideration to how we can best use the latest technology. And make no mistake about it, emerging technology is changing every aspect of our lives, all based on our ability to obtain information and communicate at lightning speed 24/7: how we see ourselves, how we think, feel, and behave; our social interactions; the way we do business; how we entertain ourselves.

Marc Cooper said, "The bottom line is that we don't know. All of this is too new. It's like sitting around in the year 1500 and trying to figure out where the printing press was going to take us." I agree that we just don't know and, yes, it's all new to us, but that's all the more reason to cast a critical eye on how we use technology.

I am both excited and a bit scared of what the technology of the future will hold. Excited about new technologies that will make our lives better, more interesting, and more connected. And scared in two ways. First, given the emotional reactions the Twitter outage provoked, I'm worried about the unintended emotional and social consequences of rapidly emerging technology. Second, I'm terrified of the unimaginable impact of a 9/11-type attack on our cyber grid.

Yes, brilliant minds will continue to develop amazing new technologies that will change our world. At the same time, equally brilliant minds must be encouraged to collaborate in this development to understand the impact of these changes, so that the benefits can be maximized and the costs minimized.

The march toward exascale computers
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