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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In Defense of Susan Greenfield

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been taking a lot of flak these past few days for her comments about Facebook and computers in general:
If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder...
and
I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf
She's taken a lot of flak, and she fully deserves it. Her comments were ill-judged and they bring her position as head of the Royal Institution into disrepute. Her speculations about clinical diagnoses such as ADHD and autism were especially dubious.

Greenfield's statements also display the vacuous obsession with "The Brain" so common today - if she'd simply said that spending hours on the internet might plausibly make kids grow up anti-social, that would be fair enough, but she had to bring the brain into it (several times in her various comments). Hence the headlines to the effect that Facebook could change or damage the brain. Well, Facebook does change the brain - as does everything else - because every experience we have has an influence somewhere in the brain. I'm reminded of Vicky Tuck on boy's and girl's brains; Tuck, however, is not a neuroscientist. Greenfield should know better.

But despite all this, Baroness Greenfield does make an important point.
At the moment I think we're sleepwalking into these technologies and assuming that everything will shake down just fine
These are very wise words. As a society, we are in danger of "sleepwalking" into social and cultural changes which we may end up regretting. Profound changes in the way people live rarely happen overnight, and they are rarely presented to us as a choice that we can either accept or reject. Societies just change, over a span of decades, often without anyone noticing what is happening until the change has happened.
One of my favorite books is Bowling Alone by the sociologist Robert D. Putnam. Putnam assembled data from a wide range of sources to support his theory that a profound change took place in America over the years from about 1960 to 1990; namely, that Americans stopped participating in community life. Union membership, Church attendance, charitable giving, league bowling, voter turnout, cards-playing, and many other such statistics fell markedly over this period, after a high peak in the 1950s. Meanwhile, solitary or small-group activities such as TV watching, spectator sports, and so on, exploded. Over the span of 20 years or so, Americans lost interest in "the community" as a whole and turned to themselves and their immediate circle of friends and family. He also makes a convincing case that this is, in many ways, a bad thing.

I doubt that Putnam's thesis is water-tight; for all I know he may have cherry-picked those statistics that support his theory and ignored those that don't. It wouldn't be the first time that someone has done that. Yet what's interesting about Bowling Alone is that even if Putnam's theory is only part of the truth, it's hard to deny that there's something in it - but it still took a book published in 2000 to bring it to people's attention. Putnam was writing about profound changes that every American will have felt to some degree. Yet these changes went un-noticed, or at least, few noticed that the various individual changes were part of a larger trend.

Putnam proposes various causes for the fragmentation of American community life, ranging from suburbanization to the increasing time pressures of work to that old favorite "the breakdown of the family". None of these were deliberate choices. Over 20 years or so America sleepwalked into a different way of life. This is hard to deny even, if you don't accept everything Putnam says. Baroness Greenfield, clearly, is no Robert Putnam. But her point about the dangers of sleepwalking is a sound one. Sleepwalking happens. It would be a pity if that message were to be lost in all the nonsense about Facebook and the brain.

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