John Pugh MP writes … Twitter ye Not – why Frankie Howerd was right

I’m deeply wounded to hear that a website referred to me as an analogue MP after I attacked the over-use of BlackBerries and iPhones during the House of Commons proceedings.

Wounded – because I could be thought a techno-geek. I build my own PCs, maintain and set up my office networks, buy books on Linux, and hold endless, sad conversations about interoperability. I am not a technophobe.

I just notice that (1) sometimes people pay more attention to the virtual world in their hand than the real world around them; (2) sometimes it’s rude to do so (say, when talking to real people); and (3) sometimes its obsessive and pointless behaviour.

The Tweetminster site promises to link Westminster to the real world, and I do want MPs to have real friends, real debates and real conversations. But that is not the same thing as sending random messages to strangers in the virtual world. I question the value and indeed the intrinsic interest of a public running commentary on one’s life – partly because I want people and politicians to have more time for an inner (ie, non-public) life: reflection, thought, listening, reading, etc .

You don’t always get more interesting by talking all the time and there is no reason why tweeting constantly should be any different. I worry about people who can’t anymore just go to the gym, cafe or event without having to tell thousands they’re doing it . Just do it, I say !

For a politician to oppose tweeting, I am told by Labour’s Twitter czar, is like not looking ‘the public’ in the eye – but it is the addicted tweeter eyes, glued to their devices, who are (I observe) least likely to look the people around them in the face.

Tweeting may have a genuine place in show-business, where adoring fans hang on one’s every word – and maybe politics really is after all showbiz for ugly people – but does it get taken more seriously if encoded in instanteous messages. Had Churchill tweeted at Yalta “Just popping into see Joe Stalin – my what a huge sofa!” – would the event have become more relevant.

Ultimately I suspect that lightning-fast, perpetual communication does not much advance or deepen thought; rather, it encourages ill-thought out re-circulation of stock opinion and borrowed expressions.

Soren Kierkegaard, as garrulous and self-absorbed philosopher as you could find, said of the mass media – “the vast mass of the people have no opinions on many topics but, thanks to the press, here they come!” Tweeting – fun though it may be – is instant, undeveloped observation which makes the circulation of opinion easy without noticeably enhancing its critique.

* John Pugh is Liberal Democrat MP for Southport.

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15 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Nov '09 - 11:48am

    You’re roughly correct. What you’re talking about is called “Continuous partial attention”, it’s a well-known phenomenon (look it up). To some extent it is useful in small doses, but you cannot accomplish anything complex and well-reasoned in that manner. You need to allocate time without all the distractions, so that you can get things done.

  • Martin Land 6th Nov '09 - 11:53am

    Personally I find the people who spend all their time on the iphones and Blackberries best left alone doing that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Nov '09 - 5:31pm

    I was called a “technophobe” for arguing against electronic voting and machine counting of votes.

    I have never met any of my fellow professional computer scientists who disagree with me on that issue. People who really know their technology know when not to use it.

  • Well said John!

    Twitter is great for spreading uninformed opinionated nonsense further than it deserves, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for advancing the cause of politics or representation.

  • Tweetminster, if you think people might be interested in your thoughts on John’s piece, you didn’t understand John’s piece!

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Nov '09 - 10:12am

    Who’s blaming the tool? All he’s saying is: don’t sit around chatting when you’re supposed to be working. We don’t tolerate it when people do it by talking; why should we tolerate it when they’re doing it with the latest web toy?

  • Can we have a ‘like’ button on LDV – I dont have the attention span to write a full answer saying how much I agree with John on this…

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