Friday, April 24, 2009

TwitterThink

I know I've been a little harsh on social networking technology. I guess that's because I don't have any use for it myself, and have a sneaking suspicion that it was invented by men as a way of ending forever the complaint of millions of women to their husbands: "Are you on that computer again????" Which, if I'm right, was a devious strategy that has worked all too well.

But here, at last, is a good reason for Twitter to exist:
Twitter messages are so short — a 140-character limit — that you have to really think about what you want to say.

For Adam Wilson, thinking is all he has to do.

Earlier this month, Wilson thought of a tweet (the name for a post to the social networking site) and poof, his computer read his mind and sent the darn thing. At just 23 characters, Wilson's message, "using EEG to send tweet," was done with a computer setup that interprets brain waves.

The technology could one day help patients who otherwise can't communicate finally talk to the outside world. Among them are people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.

Of course, it's not quite as easy as it sounds; users are looking at a "keypad" screen:

"All the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually," Williams explained. "And what your brain does is, if you're looking at the 'R' on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the 'R' flashes, your brain says, 'Hey, wait a minute. Something's different about what I was just paying attention to.' And you see a momentary change in brain activity."

So for now, this is a slow process; the researchers liken it to having to press a phone keypad up to four times for each letter you want to text. Still, the idea that some communications-impaired people might be able to use Twitter to keep family and friends informed about their health and lives is something it's hard to oppose.

Unfortunately, given our government's increasingly totalitarian approach toward the lives and freedom of its citizens, I could imagine this technology eventually being put to the wrong use. After all, "You have the right to remain silent" doesn't necessarily mean you have the right not to look at a flashing screen of letters while the arresting officers monitor you from their Tweet Decks, or some such thing. And if you refuse to do it--why, surely no one who is innocent would refuse such a thing, right? What are you hiding, that you don't want to tweet your thoughts to law enforcement?

So we'll have to be careful that some futuristic version of Twitter that promises to save us all the hassle of sitting down and actually typing those 140 characters each time we have an urgent need to tell the world that we just had the theme song from a show we watched twenty years ago pop into our head for no reason doesn't ever catch on. Because we're still human, and TwitterThink! would be an unmitigated disaster.

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