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Think Before You, er, …Tweet?

Businessman James Andrews, arriving in Memphis on a business trip, tweeted, “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here.’”

Andrews’ comments created an uproar in Memphis and jeopardized his job. “He failed to consider that once recorded and made public on Twitter, his words might come back to haunt him, such being life in the digital age,” points out  P.M. Forni, professor in the Department of German and Roman Languages and Literatures, in his new book, The Thinking Life, How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction.

The need to think before you tweet is just one variation of the theme, illustrated in countless cases and developed as a point for reflection in this latest work by Forni, who has become the voice for civility through his popular writings. While embracing new digital media as a great source of information, Forni explains that the barrage of instant communication can lead to stress and unhappiness. “In this age that has made distraction a way of life,” he writes “the essence of my message could not be simpler: Think if you wish to thrive.”

Forni, professor of Italian literature, has ushered in a new era of civility at countless workplaces and schools through his Hopkins-based Civility Initiative. A devotee of the Stoic philosophers, he himself is the essence of civility and calm as he responds to nuances of conversation over a glass of iced tea at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. The spark for this attention to inattention did not come from any specific event or student; rather it stemmed from his observation of “society at large,” he says.” It seems that we cannot conceive of how the Roman aqueducts, the pyramids, Michelangelo’s David … “ Forni pauses as if he could continue the list forever, “could be conceived without Facebook.”

“One of the major disadvantages of our reliance on the Net is that we do not retain the information. Our prevailing operational mode is one of retrieval, not retention. The problem with that is that our brain’s neural pathways are only as good as the cognitive tasks we ask them to perform. We could ask the Net to do our storing for us, but retention is not just passive storage that we can delegate to a machine.”

In his inimitable way, Forni reduces the complex to a simple, incisive question in the book: “So, is Google making us stupid?”

He skirts direct answers in favor of examples, more questions, stories and quotes from the Stoics as well as later philosophers including Buddha, Isaac Newton, and others. The Thinking Life is divided into 12 chapters addressing such topics as “Why You Don’t Think and Why You Should” and “Choosing to Be Thoughtful.” Forni urges readers to apply the book to their lives through questions and exercises at the end of each chapter. For example, in a chapter focused on simplifying life, he encourages readers to reflect: “In the age of multi-tasking, is Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation to keep things to a few inspirational or impractical?”

Forni says he likes the idea of reaching more people with down-to-earth, practical wisdom. After all, Stoic Epictetus wrote the original self-help book, The Enchiridion, which offers advice on “how to live your life in a way that is in harmony with rationality and nature,” says Forni.