The Guardian (UK) brings us a recent example of technophobia based on comments by neuroscientist Lady Susan Adele Greenfield, this time about the latest prime suspects for ‘rotting the brains of our youth': Facebook and social networking sites. Patrick Wintour offers us Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising’ the human mind, suggesting that social networking websites might be responsible for ‘short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.’The article quotes at length from a statement to the House of Lords by Baroness Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
The Baroness Greenfield has written a stack of books, including a best-seller on the brain, earned a peerage for her outstanding career, and has so many titles and honours that I’m not even sure what to call her (Prof? Lady?). Browsing her homepage and publications list, there’s a range of interesting stuff on consciousness, analgesia, dopamine, and a fair number of subjects upon which I don’t have even the expertise to comment. The only problem is that her fears, closely examined, reveal that she doesn’t know what to be afraid of, adopting a ‘one-paranoia-fits-all’ approach to technological change.
The Guardian article seems a bit over-wrought, and I don’t have the transcript of Greenfield’s presentation to the House of Lords, so I’m hesitant to attribute too much of the phobia to the original speech (for a critique of Greenfield’s habit of alarmism, however, see Ben Goldacre’s weblog). As we’ve seen repeatedly, the transition from scientist presenting to science writer submitting the story to editor reworking to press printing can be really rough, transforming subtle and measured analysis into formulaic, exaggerated soundbites. However, there are some extensive quotes, so in this piece, I’ll do my best to analyze what we have. In another post, I want to move beyond the fear of Facebook, using Lady Greenfield’s comments to think about how we might actually do research on the effects of technological change among developmental influences, but I won’t get to that in this post, as it’s already too long.
I’m not blasé about the developmental consequences of heavy exposure to screen technology, but I think that a legitimate interest in the possible effects of significant technological change in our daily lives can inadvertently dovetail seamlessly into a ‘kids these days’ curmudgeonly sense of generational degeneration, which is hardly new. That is, we have to be careful when we look at the research as it’s easy to annex our popular understandings of generational dynamics, even frustrations with our own children, students, and other young people, into a snowballing sense that everything’s going to hell.
Is new technology affecting our brain development and how? Is the recent change in the developmental environment much greater than previous changes in childhood ecology? And what specifically can we say about social networking sites as a factor in cognitive development? Obviously, these are huge questions, and it’s not my area of research specialty exactly, so I’m not going to bring fresh unpublished data to the table. But I do have some thoughts on the subject nonetheless, as our regular readers might imagine… but here’s the first part, where I deal with the concerns voiced by Greenfield and others.