Steven Pinker: Twitter can hone your skills as a writer
Stephen Pinker, the linguist, cognitive scientist and author, at the Oxford Union in February. Photograph: Roger Askew Photography
Are you a gadget fiend?
Yes, absolutely. I inherited it from my father. They can be beautiful, interesting and make life easier. But I don’t have everything. They have to do something for me in my life and their advantages have to outweigh the disadvantages.
Your new book is a style guide. Is technology making us bad writers?
No, why should it? I get this question a lot. There’s a funny assumption that if you write in 140 characters for Twitter it suddenly means you have lost the ability to write in any other way, as if the brain only has room for one kind of writing. It’s just one out of dozens of ways to write. If you take it as a challenge it can hone your skills as a writer. One of the cardinal rules of style is omit needless words. That’s what Twitter forces you to do.
Are social websites damaging children’s brains, as Oxford university neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield argues?
There are harmful effects in the sense of a child who never plays with bugs or flowers is missing something in life. But does it actually lead to structural damage in the brain? There’s no evidence that it does. And to say social websites affect the brain makes it sound much more dramatic than it is. From watching football to going to church, everything affects your brain. It is gratuitous neuro-babble.
Emojis can help to avoid giving offence. Photograph: Bluekat / Alamy/Alamy
Do you use emojis when writing text messages and emails?
Occasionally I will use the old-fashioned which goes back to the 1980s. It can be useful in cases where there is some chance that a sentence will offend. One of the style manuals that I read in writing my own was Style (1955) by the English classical scholar FL Lucas. In it, he said it would be really good if we had some kind of punctuation mark that indicated that the previous statement was intended ironically or in jest. Here was a literary lion proclaiming a need for the smiley face.
Do you love or loathe Moocs, the university level courses being made available over the internet without charge to very large numbers of people?
I’m a virgin. I have neither given nor taken a Mooc. The extra work it would take to bring my courses to the level of professionalism that would be required would not be intellectually rewarding. I enjoy teaching undergraduates, but when you do a Mooc you’ve got to keep repeating a sentence over and over again until there’s no ambulance in the background, no truck backing up and no stumbles where you say “um” and repeat yourself. I also don’t think it should be done just because it’s the latest fad and everyone else seems to be doing it. There should be a discussion of what it means to the future of education.
Do you have to force yourself offline?
I do. I try to develop workarounds. When I am writing, for example, I set aside blocks of time when I turn off my email. Many of us have become addicted to email and other electronic media, and that can lead to anxiety. Our culture hasn’t yet developed a set of civilising norms when it comes to electronic media. But I don’t think this is a permanent problem. We will develop socially acceptable timeouts and habits of email consideration.
You tweet @sapinker and have 146,000 followers. What other social media do you use?
A digital media strategist in Sweden, Dennis Rydgren, keeps a Facebook fan page for me, but I don’t maintain a personal Facebook page. I did notice someone at one point impersonating me on Facebook. He answered questions in my voice and I thought he did a pretty good job. I stupidly hit the button that said “this person is impersonating me” and shut him down. If I had had my wits about me I would have hired him.
What are your favourite websites?
I like Arts & Letters Daily . It means I don’t have to subscribe to a hundred intellectual, literary and scientific magazines. I also like Digital Photography Review . Photography is one of my major non-academic pastimes.
What’s your favourite gadget?
My Leica M camera. It is certainly overpriced. It is a bit of techno-nostalgia. It is digital, but you have to set everything with mechanical knobs. It has no auto-focus. I love the visual design of it – it has a Bauhaus minimalist sensibility – and the sensuous, tactile feel of focusing and setting the aperture with my own fingers. I like the heft of it in my hands.
Would you publish your genome?
I already have. I published it six years ago, at least what they were able to sequence back in late 2008. You can find it on my website, along with a scan of my brain. If someone out there wants to find out whether I have the gene for wet or dry ear wax, they’re welcome to it. There is not much of interest that can be read from a genome at this point.
Would you have sex with a robot?
Only with the permission of my wife.
Google Glass: not useful enough. Photograph: John Minchillo/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Have you ever tried Google Glass?
Yes, I was an early adopter. I tried it for a day and sent it back. I don’t have anything against it – I don’t think it’s intolerably geeky – but I just didn’t find it useful enough compared to pulling a smartphone out of my pocket. Also, I don’t use Gmail, and with Google Glass you have to be part of the Google universe. People making predictions about the future don’t take into account the dozens of little inconvenience factors that add up to the difference between a technology being adopted and not being adopted.
Do you ever play computer games?
No. But I do have an all-time favourite game that was significant in my life. When I got my first personal computer back in 1981 it came with Pac-Man so I started to play and to my horror discovered that three hours had passed as I was sitting at work at Stanford University. Since then I swore not to get addicted to video games. I may not have played a video game since. Well, I may have done a little bit of Tetris in the 90s, but that was it. Those three hours of lost productivity weighed on me.
How often do you Google yourself?
Not that often. I don’t want to give over too much mental space to thinking about myself. It’s a way of managing my own consciousness.
Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, is out now.