Is there is a downside to Facebook & Twitter?

According to the columnist Jackie Ashley, writing in today’s edition of The Guardian, Baroness Susan Greenfield the cross-bench peer and  neuroscientist, speaking in a debate about social networking sites, asked whether the new way of social interaction actually changing the brains, and indeed the minds of a generation, and if so, what might that mean?


The nub of the Baroness’s argument, as Ashley reads it, is this:

We know from neuroscience that the brain constantly changes, physically, depending on what it perceives and how the body acts. So Greenfield suggests that the world of Facebook is changing millions of people, most of them young.

Greenfield argues that a shorter attention span, a disregard for consequences in a virtual everything-is-reversible world, and most importantly, a lack of empathy may be among the negative changes. She quotes a teacher who told her of a change in the ability of her pupils to understand others. She points out that irony, metaphor and sympathy can all be lost in cyberspace.

There is also the question of identity. An intern working for Greenfield told her: “In a world where private thoughts and feelings are posted on the internet for all to see, it’s hard to see where ourselves finish and the outside world begins.” Where is the long-term narrative in a life reduced to a never-ending stream of bite-sized thoughts? Even clever writers end up “twittering” a burble of banalities.

Ashley herself recognises that the a great deal has been gained by our embracing the new ways of interacting. She’s no Luddite, and fully accepts that “if you opt out of it, you cut yourself off” However she does suggest that the good Baroness may very well have a point.

….I think Greenfield has a good point. The changes to our minds caused by the internet revolution are happening at a time when mankind faces very difficult long-term choices. They are about energy use, the consumption of natural resources, security threats and, not least, our apparent inability to learn lessons about booms and busts. They are not abstract. They are highly political and they make people angry.

When it comes to such choices people tend to gather – they want to shout at politicians, or march, or grab someone and talk. I find my mind is changed more by direct human contact than by reading, or by online communication. When you make eye contact, hear another voice – perhaps too calm, perhaps trembling with passion – observe body language and how someone reacts to what you say, you are more fully engaged than you can be remotely.

Ashley accepts even those who seem even in an age which seems to be dominated by online communication there is recognition that in face-to-face communication we address our concerns.  

When it comes to complicated issues, we also need time and space. Not everything can be whittled down to text messages. We are living in a world of fact boxes, ever shorter sentences and flatter, simpler statements; and I wonder if we can begin to resolve some of these complex challenges this way. I’m obviously not alone. It’s been pointed out that the public appetite for live debates and lectures is growing fast; from book festivals to local protest meetings, there seems to be a celebration of direct contact that’s going in the opposite direction to Facebook-ism.

It, as far as Ashley is concerned, all comes down to our becoming more aware of what is happening and consciously adapting to it:

 Digital culture has brought us a wider conversational democracy (good), which suffers from short attention span and is too self-referential (less good). There is no answer to this. The new world is here to stay. It is part of who we are becoming and how our minds are adapting. If you opt out of it, you cut yourself off. But show me the revolution that didn’t have a downside. Show me the technological breakthrough that did not need to be reassessed. What matters is that we are conscious of these limitations, and make what adjustments we can.

The only difficulty I have with the good Baroness’s argument, as presented to us by Ashley, and Ashley’s own argument is that they both tend to  texting and social networking are somehow detracting from our ability to engage in serious debate. Anybody who thinks that the way to engage with people in a personal, public or political through a social network or by sending texts back and forth is unlikely to be able to communicate anyway.  


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