Let Them Tweet Cake
from the the-baroness-does-not-approve dept
Butcherer79 points us to the latest voice in the Twitter-is-poisoning-our-children-or-something chorus: the eminent neurophysiologist Baroness Susan Greenfield, who has come out with a firm yeah-it-totally-is-I-bet stance. If there’s a more suitable name for an arrogant Luddite than “Baroness Greenfield” I haven’t heard it, and that combined with her overly condescending proclamations makes it hard to take her thoughts on Twitter seriously:
“What concerns me is the banality of so much that goes out on Twitter. Why should someone be interested in what someone else has had for breakfast? … It reminds me of a small child (saying): ‘Look at me Mummy, I’m doing this’, ‘Look at me Mummy I’m doing that’ … It’s almost as if they’re in some kind of identity crisis. In a sense it?s keeping the brain in a sort of time warp.”
It seems like every time we think the “what you had for breakfast” hydra is slain, it rears another head. Anyone who still thinks such “banality” defines Twitter is clearly making their assessment based on bitter third-hand descriptions passed around the water cooler or, in this case, the House of Lords. The statement is reminiscent of one she made last year after noting that video games and “fast-paced TV shows” were also a factor:
‘We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist,’ she told the Mail yesterday. ‘My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.’
That’s what the Baroness really takes issue with: the way modern technology is “rewiring” our brains and altering fundamental cognitive patterns. She’s not alone, of course: Techdirt recently covered another set of claims about our “rewired” brains, and the media love these stories.
While it is undoubtedly true that our brains adapt to the way we communicate (use of the word “rewire” is misleading at best), the flaw in all these arguments is the assumption that this is somehow bad or even unusual. The entire history of progress has involved changing emphases on various skills. The Baroness made this point extremely well herself, though she seemed to think she was supporting her own position:
‘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.’
I think from this we can begin to understand her a little better. In her world, digital communication is a distraction from real life—you know, just like supermarkets. One wonders if she avoids working by electric light and shits out the window, too. And you know what? There may well be a valid psychological or perhaps even neurological argument for humans getting back in touch with their roots—but while I’m sure it’s lots of fun to entertain those arguments, most of us don’t have that luxury.
Of course, Baroness Greenfield is no stranger to exaggeration. She made headlines last September when, in a stunning display of ironically wrongheaded hyperbole, she compared Stephen Hawking to the Taliban for denying the existence of God (don’t bother trying to figure out how that makes sense). Meanwhile, her crusade against the-kids-these-days has been going on for years—in 2006 she signed an open letter to the Telegraph on the subject penned by fellow techno-panicker Sue Palmer, and also decided to examine the issue with an all-party group in the House of Lords. It consisted of herself and “three former education secretaries, Baroness Williams, Baroness Shephard and Baroness Morris”—a roster that would sound more encouraging for a fetish party than for a group dedicated to exploring new technologies.
The Baroness is no doubt a skilled neurophysiologist, but she seems to be drawing bold and broad sociological conclusions based more on instinct than evidence. Worse still, she apparently takes it as granted that any changes are bad, as if the dynamic nature of our identity and our relationship with our environment is not the very essence of being alive. I’m getting philosophical, I know, but perhaps a little fresh philosophy is exactly what Baroness Greenfield needs—she seems to be stuck in the past.