Baroness Greenfield is a neuroscientist, research scientist, author, and broadcaster based Oxford, England. Specialising in the physiology of the brain, Susan researches the impact of 21st century technologies on the mind.
Can you please outline and explain what screen culture is?
Susan Greenfield: Screen culture, is, for me, as its name suggests, a whole way of life revolving around the digital devices. So when we say screen culture, whilst I wouldn’t exclude television, it’s more the interactive nature and the mobile nature of digital devices—which of course can embrace interactive TV nowadays—but it’s more specifically when you think about the amount of hours people spend either with their X-Box, or their laptop, or indeed their mobiles or perhaps even now days with Google Glass.
Could you take us through the concept of plasticity and what that means for a mind immersed in a pervasive screen environment?
Susan Greenfield: As a neuroscientist, the reason I’m particularly fascinated and I think in equal measure both excited and alarmed by the impact of screen culture on the human brain is because as a neuroscientist I know that the human brain is changing—it’s highly plastic as we say. That’s not to mean it’s made of plastic of course, but more that it’s very dynamic, it will adapt to the environment. We’ve got the evolutionary mandate more than any other species to occupy more ecological niches than any other on the planet because of this wonderful ability that other brains have but our species has it superlatively, to adapt to the environment. So this is what is meant by plasticity and one example for example, a very famous one, is of piano players where they had three groups of adult human volunteers—none of whom could play the piano—and even over five days you could see that whereas the controls who were just staring at the piano showed no change in their brains (the brains were literally unimpressed), those people who were taught five-finger piano exercises showed an astonishing change in brain territory and functional area relating to digits, even over five days. But the even more exciting group were the third people who just imagined they were playing the piano and astonishingly, their brains showed the similar changes to those that had done the physical exercise.
So, I think this shows you how everything you do, even a ‘mere thought’ will literally leave its mark on your brain and therefore if that is the case, if we are so sensitive in adapting to the environment; if the environment is changing in an unprecedented way—as I argue it is with the cyber world—then it follows that the brain will change in a similarly unprecedented way.
Can you take us through identity? How screen culture might be redefining or changing it?
Susan Greenfield: Of the many issues that I think arise are what I call mind change—that is to say the impact of screen culture on our lives—I think the issue of identity is one of the most important ones and more specifically the impact of social networking sites. We have to first think of what identity is in any event, and of course this is a very complex question and issue.
For me, identity goes beyond merely having a mind (we have the two words after-all). Whilst on a desert island for example you wouldn’t at least at the beginning lose your mind, you’d still be you, you’d still interpret the world in certain ways. Would you have an identity on a desert island? I’d like to think that identity arises always from interaction and from a particular context with others. So you might have an identity normally as a father or as a son or as the boss or as the employee or as the Goalie or as the other member of the choir; and according to the context in which you are at any particular moment, that will be the dominant identity that you are experiencing. And I think that up until now at least, all these different contexts, different scenarios, are subsumed in a sort of narrative that gives you an overarching generalised sense of being you and of being the person you are; whether it’s being a father or son or a team player or a singer or the boss; nonetheless they’re all aspects of you, and they are this greater idea of you.
Now this requires, in our infrastructure, requires a very robust set of connectivity in the brain that has access to memories; that has personalised experiences that make you the unique individual that you are. And nonetheless, although you are influenced and interacting with the outside world, there’s this enduring sense that you’re still you: Your boss can shout at you but you’ll still be you; you can fall in love but you’ll still be you; you can have a really good game of football but you’re still you—because there’s this inner sense of robust identity irrespective of the immediate ongoing thing that you are doing.
Now what I’m concerned about is with social networking sites, you are encouraged to construct your identity externally. That is to say that instead of internalising this robust private life that is you, now everything on an almost momentary basis is subject to the approval and the judgement and evaluations of others and these others are not so much friends but more an audience. And if you’re doing that, if you are constantly out there, where everything you’re thinking and feeling is subject to the audience then I think it (identity) might be more fragile more vulnerable more changeable then it would be if it’s internalised.
Do you see perhaps an erosion of a robust identity in the world of the screens?
Susan Greenfield: So this would mean that for those people who are devotees of social networking—and I want to exclude people perhaps who’ve gone to Australia from the UK and are keeping up with their friends on the social networking sites but where the communication is based on erstwhile friendship; leaving that kind of relationship aside—the sort of relationship where you have x-hundred friends whom you’ve never met, that is where the concern comes in. Indeed there’s lots of data out there now showing that there is an increase in narcissism but sadly coupled with low self-esteem also because the more you seek approval from others, the more you’ll idealise yourself. The more you idealise yourself, the more you depart from the ‘real you’, so the lonelier you will feel, the more you will go on to social networking sites because in order to appease and get the approval of this vast audience of hundreds of so-called friends, you’re not going to be the real you and I think the other thing that I fear is that normally when you’re friends with someone, when you have an identity in relation to other people, that’s because you’re looking some in the eye, you’re perhaps touching them on the arm or wherever depending on the sort of relationship you have; you’re registering their voice tone; if they look away; if they fold their arms; that will restrain you for a little while when you first meet someone to sort of hold back a bit so you wont self-disclose everything, because evolution and biology has introduced body language to enable you to have the safeguards; not to disclose everything to everyone because if you do that you’ll be very vulnerable, they might take you over. So this means you’ll use body language to calibrate how close you can get to someone; when you’ll get close to someone; how much you disclose to someone.
Now imagine a scenario, a screen scenario, where that constraint is removed because you’re not using eye contact, you’re not using body language you’re not using voice tone, you’re not touching someone. So now you’ll just self-disclose because that’s a fun thing to do, it combats loneliness; but by so doing you’ll let more out and it will be perhaps not real because you want to impress someone and so on, this endless audience that are endlessly voraciously waiting to put their thumbs up or down upon to what you’re doing; and that will give you a vicious cycle. You’ll feel lonelier, you’ll feel less secure and therefore you’ll seek approval even more. And that’s where I think there is a shift—it’s a quantitative shift not a qualitative one—whereas identity before was something that was reasonably robust and internalised, now it’s fragile and externalised.
Speaking of identity, and in the context of consumerism and individualism, can you please unpack for us what you’ve dubbed as the ‘someone’, the ‘anyone’ and the ‘nobody’, and how screen culture provides the opportunity to be a ‘nobody’ on a scale like never before?
Susan Greenfield: If one looks away from the screen for the moment and thinks about identity more generally and the impact of culture and civilisation on the options people have to express themselves; let’s go back to the 20th century. I think that there were two very dominant options there. One was what I call the ‘somebody’ option and that is where you are literally a ‘somebody’, you are defined by what you own.
Now, what’s very interesting is that this goes back even further to the 1920s with the nephew of Freud, someone called Bernays. Bernays had a tricky problem. He was in advertising and he wanted to get people to buy things they didn’t need because this was the start if you like of capitalism after the First World War. One particular example, and I think a telling one, was to try and get women to smoke because clearly there was a vast market there to sell cigarettes to half the population that weren’t buying them. And instead of saying, “Oh, smoking is great, it makes you feel good” and so on, he had a much cleverer plan. What he had was beautiful young girls holding cigarettes and the slogan was ‘the torch of freedom.’ What Bernays had done—and this is in advertising still today—is to imply that by doing something or owning something, it will say something about you. It will say that you are, in this case, you are liberated and free and modern or whatever, and so on. And you can look on the web nowadays and still the slogan ‘as individual as you are’ or the product that says something about you—and that can apply to fluffy toys to kitchens to clothes, to everything. It’s something that in our consumer world, in our capitalist world, is a means of expressing our identity. And as Oliver James a British psychologist brilliantly wrote in a book called ‘Affluenza’, amazingly, guess what—it doesn’t bring happiness. Because you get the trainers that are as individual as you are, that say something about you, and guess what—your neighbour has the same and you enter into this arms race where you are outcompeting to try and be a ‘somebody.’
We talk about being a ‘somebody’ and a ‘someone.’ I think that this is an option where you perhaps are individual but you are never fulfilled. The other option that dominated in the 20th century was what I call the ‘anyone scenario’ and this is dominant both in fascism in communism and in any ideology whether it’s political or religious—where the individual is subsumed under a collective; where what is really important is the narrative of the ideology, of the movement. And that’s still dominant of course today in certain fundamentalist organisations. Now the problem there is you might be fulfilled; you’re in some great narrative that has a noble cause whatever that might be, but you’re no longer individual, to the extreme example that you might be expected to sacrifice your own life in favour of the greater cause.
So of course, the ‘anyone scenario’ isn’t that attractive either for most of us as an option. So that’s ‘anyone’ and that’s ‘someone’. There’s also, and this had possibilities of expression in the 20th century but I think now has been amplified by screen culture of being nobody.
By being nobody, I mean you literally let yourself go—you blow your mind; you lose your mind. Now of course, human beings have always done this. We’ve always had wine women and song incarnated as drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll where we choose to put ourselves in environments where we’re no longer ourselves—we’ve let ourselves go; we’ve blown our mind that’s so personal to us. We’re having a ‘sensational time.’ No-one wants to go out and have a ‘cognitive time.’ But you go out and have a sensational time—it’s where the senses dominate. So let’s take dancing or drinking or sex—in all those examples, you are not self-conscious; your conscious but you’re not self-conscious. And as it’s always fascinated me that humanity has always had this other mode that from time to time we’ve wanted to do, where we’ve abrogated our sense of self and we pay money to do this.
Now, what interests me a lot, is that I think for the first time, videogames in particular but screen culture generally, is giving people this opportunity to abrogate the sense of self and to blow their minds and to have at a premium, strong sensations, rather than a notion of a personal narrative. It’s a time when you are just experiencing in a sort of ‘yuk and wow’ way. One example of that was when I was saying this to a journalist a year or two ago, and I said, “Are we going to live in a society of ‘yuk and wow’ where people just either say ‘yuk or wow’ and are just reacting in that monosyllabic way?” And because I talk fast she mistyped it as ‘yukawow’, and I was astonished that within 24 hours it went viral. And I think it was attractive, and people were selling T-shirts, sadly they’d taken out the domain name, saying, “Welcome to the church of yukawow—a breezy world for no consequences.” And the whole notion of it and why it was attractive is that this silly word. “The first Church of ‘yukawow’ welcomes you to no consequences.” And I think that that has an appeal that is exaggerated beyond the normal cultures and societies that we’ve witnessed in the previous century.
As human beings we’ve got a desire to connect and have meaningful relationships with each other—could these things perhaps be drivers in the reasons we turn (and return) to the screen?
Susan Greenfield: Yes, I think people turn and return to the screen because unlike in real life, you inevitably will get instant feedback, you’ll get someone writing into you irrespective of the time or place that you are, you’ll always have someone there that will comment on you.
I think certainly the obsession with checking for text messages or Facebook far upgrades is that it fulfils, it’s almost like scratchcards—you’re getting a little bit of excitement but it’s never enough and there’s always the possibility of another and you don’t quite know when it’s going to be. Now we know that that’s just the situation in the brain that precipitates the release a chemical called dopamine which is related to addiction and reward.
Do you think that screen culture, as it is today, on the whole, exacerbates insular or introspective traits in people?
Susan Greenfield: I don’t know why people—as some have—say that perhaps the screen culture is encouraging introspection. I think probably it’s quite the opposite: If you’re in a world where what you see is what you get; where everything is reduced to simplified symbols or simplified statements—even the very word ‘YOLO’ (you only live once), which is apparently put at the end of statements that you make; where you show and tell; where you just download the chocolate cake that you’re about to eat without saying anything about the chocolate cake—this isn’t encouraging introspection or an individualisation, this is just being in the here and now reacting to things as they happen. And therefore I think perhaps the opposite, it will discourage people to reflect and have the time to think about who they are.
What about addiction? And how does that addiction work? But before we do that, perhaps speaking a little bit about how we can modify and project the ‘best sense of self’; the thin waistline, the dragon slayer instead of an accountant in Second Life; how you can edit and revise communications in e-mail, unlike in real life; and therefore how people with Autistic spectrum disorders are very comfortable in Second Life, etc.
Susan Greenfield: If we think that with social networking sites, perhaps you’re not rehearsing body language then you’re not very good at reading the signs that most of us use in face-to-face conversation to establish empathy, which goes beyond words—it’s being able to interpret the body language and the voice tone.
What’s very interesting is people with autistic spectrum disorder have problems with empathy; they fail and have great impairment to interpret just by interacting with someone, how they might be feeling. What’s very interesting is people with autistic spectrum disorder are particularly comfortable in the cyber world and my own view is that that is because in the cyber world we are all in the same position—they playing field has been levelled—that is to say we are not using either all the tricks of body language to interpret how someone else might be feeling which is why for autistic people to live in a world were ‘what you see is what you get’ and where actions speak louder than words is probably a more comfortable place than it would be in the real world where you’re aware that people are picking up on something that you yourself are not. Moreover, to go further, and this is highly controversial, but I think something that is worth reflecting on, is whether or not people that are compulsively interacting with the screen might develop themselves autistic-type and I say autistic-type not clinically autistic—autistic type traits. One example of that is a study where they were recording the EEG from people when they showed them a face as opposed to a table. Now, in people that are not autistic, in adults, when people see a face, the EEG is a more marked response when they an object like a table. And for autistic people the EEG is the same—they don’t differentiate between a face and a table in terms of excitement or importance. Guess what, people that are spending a lot of time on the Internet their EEG doesn’t differentiate between the face and the table. So I think clearly this is an area that must be explored, but it does follow, it would make sense for me that if you’re not rehearsing empathy, you’re not going to be very good at it and therefore there might be these consequences of not being so good at interpersonal interaction.
Talking about addiction, the thrill of the moment trumping long-term consequences…
Susan Greenfield: I think that when you’re playing videogames for example, one of the ideas, one of the tenets of videogame design, is that there shouldn’t be long-term consequences, and what concerns me there is that if you’re living in a world where people can be obligingly undead the next time around, this is not a particularly good lesson to learn about life. It might make you more reckless certainly, but at the same time you don’t have a sense of enduring long-term meaning or significance, because if everything is reversible it’s not significant or meaningful. If I drop a piece of paper on the floor and pick it up again, that’s not very meaningful because I’ve reversed it. If I punch someone in the face and their teeth fall out, that’s highly meaningful because it’s irreversible—they’ll no longer have their teeth again. What’s very interesting about that world, that exciting world, where you are aroused and you’re in the moment, is we know that that’s a good condition within the brain to release the chemical dopamine. And we know that dopamine is a very useful transmitter in the brain—chemical messenger—it mediates things like movement; and is in excess in schizophrenia; but among its many jobs, one of the things it seems to participate in is reward systems but also addiction. Every drug of addiction—every drug—irrespective of its chemical status and its immediate target; every drug of addiction will cause a release of dopamine in the brain. So we know that if there’s lots of dopamine being released in the brain; that could tie in with feelings of reward and also possibly addiction. Now one has to be careful because addiction has a narrow definitions or using words like ‘compulsive’, but now the American Psychiatric Association has got it on its list to be considered, Internet addiction as a condition, a psychiatric condition. Numbers vary around the world but there are estimates that roughly about 10% would be picked what would be called addictive for what that’s worth.
Exploring the concept of process over content in the context of screen culture: What do you mean by process over content?
Susan Greenfield: I’ve often spoken about the benefits of screen culture being one of agile processing, but how that mustn’t be confused with content. There is a book written a while ago by someone called Steven Johnson called Everything Bad Is Good For You which extolled the benefits of screen culture. And one of them is that it could be linked to high IQ because the skills that you rehearse when you play videogames are similar to those that are required to do well in an IQ test—that is to say you don’t need a lot of facts, or infrastructure, or hinterland; but you do have to be very agile at looking at patterns and connections and getting to an answer in a rather fast timeframe. So the idea is that because the human brain is always good what it rehearses, if you’re rehearsing that, you’re going to be good at it, and so then you go to an IQ test and guess what—you’ll be good. But even Steven Johnson says just because as many claim we’re seeing an increase in IQ scores in certain societies, we’re not seeing an increase in empathy or understanding or creativity or insight, and we’re not seeing an increase in brilliant novels being written or insights into the economic woes of the world or the ‘Middle East’ crisis, you know, no one has suddenly come up with their superior cognitive abilities with insights that we would regard as important. Now I think what you need to do therefore, is on the one hand, yes it’s very good for mental processing for what used to be called ‘fluid intelligence’—that is to say where the emphasis on giving a right response to an input—my own little brother for example when he was three and I was 16 I used to force him to learn Shakespeare, he could recite off in a way that an adult perhaps wouldn’t have done so efficiently, great swathes of Shakespeare, because he had learnt it by heart, because I’d taught him, he was like a parrot. So we know that processing fluid intelligence might be linked to rehearsals with those kind of activities on the screen, but that’s not the same as understanding.
Information is not knowledge and I think this is what people confuse. And by knowledge, I refer to content, and content for me is true intelligence which is where you can see one thing in terms of another. So for example the bit in Mac Beth, “Out, out brief candle”, in order to really understand that you have to see the analogy between the extinction of the candle and the extinction of life. You can’t just say take a candle literally. And I think that that’s what we are missing out on; that’s what might be in jeopardy; that’s certainly not enhanced by doing very fast clever things with videogames even though you might be able to give impressive responses very quickly, correct responses very quickly, that’s not the same as understanding. And I think we have to be careful about differentiating them.
Can you talk a little bit about the aspects of learning versus simply accessing facts, contrasted to building knowledge and understanding?
Susan Greenfield: So following on from that idea we think about learning, and lets take the example the British education Minister Michael Gove who recently said, “Yes, young children now, everyone should learn a poem.” And I think that’s wrong, I think the emphasis should be that they should understand the poem, because of a child can be a parrot as my brother was. So really what we need is not just to access facts but we need to see one fact in terms of something else.
Facts on their own are pretty boring, you know who cares the height of a mountain, or the date of a battle, the name of a King—these things are only relevant if you relate them to others and you see a trend and you can generalise, or if you’re learning the name of a king, you know more about that king and why he was important. So a fact on its own is why trivial pursuits and pub quizzes are not held up as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Facts on their own are not the same as interpreting the facts; putting the facts into a framework. And even more important than facts, are ideas; and you do not get automatically ideas coming out of an iPad. You won’t have that. You’ll have access to facts, but it requires an inspired teacher, it requires your thinking processes, it requires something in addition for you personally to join up the dots. And that’s, for me, that’s real knowledge.
So just amplifying that, can we just talk about not so much internalising and understanding the facts, because you can just Google them on impulse…
Susan Greenfield: Recently there was some work done by someone called Sparrow were she claimed that we were changing our memory processing because you can just look something up on Google and what she found was that people remembered very well where to access things, but not the facts themselves and that does concern me because lets take that ad absurdum: If you feel you can look anything up and you don’t have to learn anything, this would mean conversation is going to be pretty clunky because if I normally meet someone of roughly my generation and culture, I will assume they know where Barcelona is and I will assume they know who Napoleon was or who Henry VIII was; I will assume they’ll know where New York is; so you can have a conversation—and we all know the delight of having conversations with people where you share a lot of background knowledge that can develop ideas—but imagine having a conversation with someone who knew nothing; who didn’t know who Hitler was, who hadn’t heard of fascism; who had to look it up each time? This would mean that you couldn’t really have a very fluid or interactive conversation and I know that sounds extreme but if we are always having recourse to an external source of memory than I think it’s going to have a severe impact on how we interact, how fast we have ideas, and what we do with them; and I think that the younger generation perhaps might be disadvantaged in not having such ready agile processes and have a much more cut-and-paste mentality to what they learning.
One of the most alarming and I think insidious developments which people haven’t really talked about a lot is the advent of Google Glass which hasn’t really taken off yet, but I gather it’s going to hit the mass market towards the end of 2013, the end of this year, and I’m sure most people know this but anyway, its where you wear these rimless glasses with a funny black oblong device in one corner which of course will augment reality for you. So as you’re going around, you’ll know more than your five senses are telling you. And this seems a fantastic setting but imagine living in a world that is unremittingly giving you additional information all the time and you don’t have time to digest it or do anything with it because you’re onto the next new thing that is coming along. More over, it can give a readout of where you are and what you’re thinking. So its like a constant Facebook or a constant Twitter feed where all the time you are interactive, you’re plugged in, you’re hyper-connected to everyone else and I think that this, may make people more vulnerable.
First of all, it will become compulsive and that not having it, you’ll suddenly feel that you’ve lost a sense or you’ve lost something, you’re at some disadvantage, so I predict that once these things become on the mass market it will be like mobile phones—everyone will have to have one and have one and it will change the culture. But in a way that is passive, that is to say with a mobile phone at least you have to access the thing, you have to take it out of your pocket, you have to press the screen, or you have to do something. Here, you won’t have to do anything. You’ll just be walking around and there it will be, this augmented reality all the time. And it also means that perhaps you could be manipulated yourself according to the feed that you’re giving, according to where you are and what you’re doing, perhaps even more than is the case at the moment with Google. Things can be tailored to be put in. We now know that when you go shopping online your tastes are logged so that that can be personalised for you in a perspective way. So imagine that amplified even more where everything you’ve done is going into some horrible vast Big Brother database where you can then be manipulated; it can be accessed.
I don’t think people have realised just how pervasive Google Glass is going to be once it really takes off, but its something that for ethical reasons concerns me, as an neuroscientist it concerns me because I think it’s the final last barricade of privacy that will be stormed, and at the same time I can see people finding it so alluring and so exciting that they won’t want to use it intermittently.
Can you talk a little about how Googling things effects the deep thinking?
Susan Greenfield: Even now I think when you Google something it really has changed the tables—turned the tables around. In the old days I remember as a student I lived in a question rich, answer poor world, that is to say, in order to find something out I’d have to go to the library; I would have to forage around the books; perhaps some other student had taken out that book, I’d have to wait, I’d have to order it out from the stack—I had to work very hard to get access to certain facts and to certain information, but nonetheless I had the time therefore to know exactly what I wanted to know; to formulate a very crisp question; to know exactly what would satisfy me or not, comparing it with other answers. Now are we living in a world where we are bombarded with answers and we’re so bombarded with answers I don’t think we have time to formulate questions anymore. And we are so perhaps transported by the experience of accessing Google, and of surfing, and of watching YouTube—most of which has no real significance. Watching a dog as a trick cyclist—so what? Watching people planking, watching the ‘Harlem Shake’—why are we doing this? Because the experience of it is obviously by definition pleasurable but were not doing it to find anything out, because we’re not on a quest anymore because we know we can go on to the next thing and the next thing and this in a sense the means has outpaced the ends and I think that again this will have seriously implications for education.
What about distraction? And short attention spans? Can you take us through that?
Susan Greenfield: So of course one asks why does the screen environment…why is it so appealing compared to the real world because after all, its only stimulating your hearing and your vision; it’s two-dimensional—why should that be more attractive than climbing a tree or feeling the sun on your the face or the wind in your hair or the smell of the ocean? Why should it be better than that? And I think the answer is because it’s fast and furious. Because the experiences are supra-sensory. You only have to look at modern videogames to see how fast and bright and loud and fast-paced and exhilarating and arousing they are for many people. Now the price you pay for that, for that super sensory stimulation, is that because it’s so fast, you as a human being, as always obligingly adapting to your environment, will adapt to an environment that mandates a short attention span and I think that the increase in prescriptions for methylphenidate—the most common example Ritalin, should make us think about whether there is a link with attentional disorders and in particular videogames but screen culture
If we look to see how methylphenidate prescriptions of ?? that’s Ritalin, and drugs that are prescribed for attentional problems, that could be that the drugs are being given more liberally; it could be that ADHD has been medicalised in a way it wasn’t before; or it could just be that if you take a young brain with the evolutionary mandate to adapt to the environment and the environment is a fast paced one, you’ll adapt to that, of course is what you do. And then you’ll go to school and you’ll fidget a bit and someone will say you have an attentional problem. We know that there is a link with this because what’s interesting is people are suggesting a bidirectional causality between in particular videogames and attention. It turns out that people that play videogames a lot have a history of attention issues and vice versa. And it could be that when you play a video game and you’re releasing this dopamine in the brain in a way that is simulating what Ritalin does which is to release dopamine in the brain. So it could be almost that kids perhaps who have this mindset are self-medicating when they play videogames almost.
Please take us through the how screen experiences are literal; it’s a ‘sensational time’. How does that contrast with other forms of interaction or brain processes?
Susan Greenfield: Now of course with screens, they stimulate only hearing and vision but that they have to do that, which means that—leaving aside issues such as Kindle and reading from the screen and I’m happy to talk about that later—on the whole, especially for younger people, much of their screen experience is very visual. It’s not just words. And I think if you are encouraged always to traffic in symbols and icons and vision, then that is how your world will be—it will be very literal world where things don’t have a significance or a meaning; what you see is what you get.
So let’s take something like this example of a princess in a videogame. When you play the videogame to rescue the princess, she’s an icon. She doesn’t mean anything, she’s just there; she’s the thing that you rescue. Whereas when you read about Princess in a novel, the Princess has a past, like you; she has relationships, like you; she has a future hopefully, like you hopefully. She has therefore a meaning and a significance which is the reason why you keep turning the pages—you want to find out what happens to the princess. So she has an identity and a significance in a way because she’s this abstract persona in that you can’t see, but you can imagine—she has a significance that is much more significant and important that this icon a videogame who literally means nothing. And I think that if you’re always trafficking in icons that have no significance, there’s no context, there’s no relevance, they’re just there; then the world will just be there—it will be like a child’s world. You know how for small children, the world is a literal one—and as soon as, you know, someone goes away they’re no longer there and you look at the next thing; you look at the ice cream or you look at the bird or you’re on to the next immediate thing in your environment. You haven’t been able to internalise anything because you’re still in an early stage of your development where you’re just reacting as animals do, to your immediate environment.
I fear that if people give young people especially an environment where you’re reacting to an external visual literal input, then we might be denying them what until now has been the birthright of humans when they read books which is the ability to have a longer attention and above all, imagination.
Where screen interaction is literal, what are some of the impacts specifically on communication?
Susan Greenfield: So, I think that when people are literally ‘rescuing the princess’ or are playing a fast-paced first-person-shooter game, or even adopting an avatar persona with the Internet videogames, where you’re playing with a lot of other people continuously; this is in a sense taking you into a different world than the real messy world where there is the real you; where actions do have consequences; where things don’t cooperate, things don’t feedback immediately. And this world which is much more complex and messy and less satisfactory than the bright, fast, immediate world, where you are important and special and anyway, things don’t matter when you do them; it’s a very different world; and I think it’s the world very much of the children. What really gets me about videogames is it’s always, you know, intergalactic warfare, or princesses, or demons, or fairy tales almost; of a level and that normally only a small child would read about rather than the real world. And I think that by living in this world of magic and superhuman properties, one is overlooking what really makes a person a person. I don’t think, I can’t ever imagine for example, Pride and Prejudice as a videogame, for example—it would never happen—or King Lear, as a videogame. No of course not. So what I worry about is this simplified world which is fast and you can give cosmetically and superficially the impression you’re being very agile and clever by giving responses; but actually are you not now missing out on the sort of things that previous generations have gained from King Lear and Jane Austen.
Does this also mean there’s been a decline in empathy as well?
Susan Greenfield: I would also predict that therefore, if you’re not rehearsing the skills that has been your biological mandate, you wonder how a very small child, they will just stare at you, they don’t automatically have interpersonal skills—these are the things you learn as you play with kids, you learn to interpret body language, eye contact, voice tone. if you’re not rehearsing those things, how can you be good at them?
Don’t you think your approach is luddite? You know, technology has always been around, doesn’t that mean that things get better?
Susan Greenfield: Some people have obviously, inevitably…If you have any idea people are going to criticise you. And that’s healthy and it’s appropriate and it’s good. So one of the ones that has been lodged against me is that I’m just some old baby boomer and technology has always been there—look at the printing press and the television, and so on; and so let’s have a think about that, because I’m sufficiently ancient to remember the advent of the television which came on at six in the evening or thereabouts, or five; it went off at 11 o’clock; there were two channels—but most importantly, most importantly, the whole family would gather around one TV set. The TV was much more like the piano in Victorian times, it was the catalyst for family interaction, family discussion, it was part of a family activity. It wasn’t something you did in isolation in your bedroom. So when one talks about for example, the TV, it was used in a very different way. It’s how it’s used. And similarly, when you think of other technologies like the printing press, like the car, like the refrigerator—they’ve all been means to an end. They’ve been a means to an end. Books give you insights for real life whether it is fact or fiction that you’re reading, that give you information and insights into how other people think and feel. Moreover, very few people read books all day continuously whereas with the screen technologies, people can be up to 10 hours a day living—in theory you could wake up in the morning, do your emails, go dating, go shopping, learn things, go surfing; everything can be done short of actually eating food and going to the loo—those two biological needs; you could spend your entire life living in parallel, doing the things people do in the real world but online. So this for me is very different. Whereas technology in the past was a means to an end, now it’s an end in-and-of itself. And that’s where I worry.
Obviously people will personally attack you rather like in the 50s they attacked people that dared to say that smoking might be linked to cancer because if people are having fun and other people are making money out of them, the last thing you want is for this happy relationship is someone saying, “Well, actually is this right? Is there not a problem here?”
I think that we shouldn’t be complacent and assume that everything is just fine; we should question and think about it. And if in the end it turns out that it is all fantastic than so be it but we have to have the debate first.
How does screen culture shake up our concept of space and time?
Susan Greenfield: What’s very interesting is that as we live our lives up until now, space and time have been the great coordinates by which everything is measured, everything is done. We have episodes at a certain time in our lives that occurred in a certain place in our lives; and the linking of these very specific episodes in space and time—especially for humans—is, if you like, our whole construct of reality. We know that very small children and indeed animals don’t have this very strong memory for very specific episodes. We know that if you damage the frontal part of the brain which is underdeveloped in children, you get something called source amnesia which is you can have generic memories, but you can’t place them in space or time. Now my own concern is that if we’re in the screen culture, of course you can go online any time, there’ll always be people answering you; and space has shrivelled, I mean, it doesn’t exist anymore—you can talk to someone in Australia at any time of the day—so this means the normal constraints of having an episode in your life that was defined by being a certain time of day or being in a certain place are no longer there. Cyberspace—where is cyberspace? It’s something where you’re just out there. And I think that whilst in moderation that’s fine, if that becomes the default condition, then it might make you a little bit more like—dare I say it, the infant, or the nonhuman—where you’re living in a generic world, that you don’t anchor in specific episodes in your life because it’s all a kind of cyber-fuzz.
Where do you see the development of technology headed? Transhumanism?
Susan Greenfield: Of course the interesting and important question we should ask is where is this cyber-culture headed? I think we have to put into a wider context and even the geekiest will have illnesses, get old eventually; eventually die. And what I find interesting if we look at biotechnology, how that now is transcending the generations in terms of what we look like, how long and healthy we’re going to live for and then eventually reproduction and we can all reproduce for longer now and perhaps eventually everyone of any age will be able to have a child of any sexual orientation with genetic material extracted from any cell in their bodies.
So I think there are some science-fiction type scenarios just round the corner, beyond the screen technologies—even nanotechnology, where we can have smart devices within our bodies that perhaps breach the firewall previously that differentiated you from the outside world. So I think that those technologies should be viewed hand-in-hand with Information Technology. What’s very interesting is so-called transhumanism—the more ambitious we become with manipulating small sensing devices, or a small implants in the body, there is possibly the grounds for actually making you ‘better’, making you ‘superhuman’; that’s what transhumanism is. This was dubbed by one magazine as one of the most dangerous ideas.
The problem is transhumanism is it does beg the question why. Why do you want to run faster than human beings normally run or see beyond the visible spectrum? Is it because you want to be better? You want to outperform others? In which case, isn’t that a rather pernicious journey to embark on? Surely, it would be: Couldn’t you be more individual? Couldn’t you be more creative? Couldn’t you have better ideas than the other person? Not: Can’t you see something they can’t see? And I find that rather sinister, that this rather primitive idea of one-upmanship over emphasising the individual. And then of course, these technologies are expensive and we’d be facing a colonialism, that outpaced the old colonialism where you have the techno-have’s and the techno-have-not’s. So transhumanism isn’t necessarily going to ensue from the screen technologies, or screen culture, it’s something that is there because people will always want to be special and better than other people. But it’s something I think that we can have a culture where we don’t applaud it, where we do applaud individuality.
So you’re especially concerned about this distinction between techno-have’s and the techno-have-not’s?
Susan Greenfield: Of all my worries, I think the distinction between the techno-have’s and the techno-have-not’s is not one of my more pressing ones because actually in terms of the immediate digital technologies this has actually had a huge benefit in the developing world. Mobile phones have done a lot and one can access many many things now on the Internet that would’ve been very hard to have established as physical infrastructure. So I’m not so worried about that. What I’m worried about more is the mindset that creates the demand for things; rather like one wanted when one at looked at Bernays in 1920s, saying, “This is the torch of freedom”—that you wanted to say something about yourself by having or owning something. I’m concerned that perhaps in the future people will feel so insecure, that instead of putting a premium on being the wonderful individual that each of us are; they’ll just want to be better than other people and I think that that will be a very sad way to go.
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