John C. O'Connell

Reflections on the revolution


Faces down, thumbs tapping, simultaneously relating to and isolating from, communicating and ignoring, exchanging information and yet limiting responses, without the challenge of face to face or even the duel of voice to voice, we text.

We indulge our need to share on the almost one-way streets of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other apps with brief posts, wonderful images or just snapshots — a jab, a borrowed inspirational message, a precious moment, a silly pet video, a sad memory.

Every day we have more conversations than we’ve ever had. There’s more information, gossip, rumor, opinion, celebrity news, speculation, political persuasion, social demands and commercial marketing coming at us every hour now than we had every week 10 years ago.

We have access to news stories, historical facts, art, photography, videos, products, books, music, films, shopping, government services, travel advice, ancient texts, bill-paying, professorial erudition, puerile opinions, uninformed screeds, live TV, radio, sports, adolescent prurience, hate speech, cartoons. We can read an analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” by learned university instructors, and a few finger taps later play Call of Duty with Sam Worthington.

The wonder of it all!

What’s great about this exponentially increased information and communication stream is how much more informed we all are, how much better we relate to others, how much more educated we are by hearing the “other side” of arguments, right? Right?

Wait, what? We’re not seeing more enlightened youth? We’re not seeing more knowledgeable kids and adults? We’re not seeing teenagers who can listen and talk to others with greater ease?

Certainly in the field of journalism, all these devices make for better stories, right? Instead of waiting to call a source until you get to a phone, you can call from wherever you are, right? So that’s got to mean more frequent contact with sources, yes? We must be seeing people who write better, considering that they’re writing more than ever, since they’re texting 100 times a day, right?

Well, no, actually.

Reporters — and citizens in general — are becoming way more opinionated, but not better informed. Some journalists, adroit with devices, are still bad journalists. If sources don’t respond to a text, to an email, there’s no story. Calling sources and speaking to them live is uncomfortable, a last resort if Facebook Messaging doesn’t work. And meeting someone to talk for an hour? Too busy to use up all that time finding out more than minimally necessary.

I’m no Luddite. I use an iPhone X, my iPad Air and my solid state MacBook Pro (my third MBP), and I enjoy the big screen of my 24-inch iMac at home. The tools are fabulous. I use them happily. Constantly. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I check news sites regularly.

But the devices are tools.

Carpenters don’t build better houses because they have nicer hammers. Basketball players don’t sink more 3-pointers because they have newer sneakers. Photographers don’t compose better images because they have Nikon D850s instead of D90s. Better tools can help you do better things and do them faster, but better tools don’t replace the fundamentals.

Digital equipment has come on so fast, with such sizzle and glamorous ubiquity, that it has made us forget the basics. Just because we have access to more books than ever hasn’t replaced the need to learn reading comprehension. Just because we can read a hundred commentators’ opinions of political candidates and presidential decisions on our tablets doesn’t mean we can surrender to the experts, or to that device, our own critical thinking, or fail to learn what that is.

Walking through a library and looking at every volume’s spine can be done many centuries more quickly than reading all the books. But just looking at a lot doesn’t educate, doesn’t develop a foundation for reasoned opinions, doesn’t arm you with the knowledge that can make you confident and someday, maybe, a little wiser.

IMHO, society will be improved by the depth and breath of our understanding of one another and the worlds each of us inhabit, and by our ability to empathize, analogize and analyze — to care, to be curious and to adapt. An appreciation for all that will improve not only society, but also ourselves.

People acted with goodness and with evil, were smart and dumb, loyal and treacherous, wise and ignorant long before there were smartphones. I suppose it’s no big surprise that we act the same after the digital revolution.

The unusual thing — the ridiculous thing — is that too many of us think the devices themselves will bring us wisdom, or even truth.

Wouldn’t you like to know now the effect that this digital proliferation will have on us 30 years from now? Maybe we’ll have to wait for an app for that.

Let me know what you think of the digital revolution and its effect on us, at

John O’Connell retired as the Herald’s executive editor in 2016.