The impact of digital technologies on the mind – House of Lords style

Over my toast this morning I was flicking through last week’s Hansard, as you do. Yaaawn I hear you say. Come now say I. Buried deep in this mountain of sleep inducing text can be found valuable nuggets of information worthy of dissemination to the wider audience. I am here to serve.

On 5th December the House of Lords held a short debate, introduced by Baroness Greenfield, on the impact of digital technologies on the mind. Beginning with the factoid that a recent survey in the USA found that over half of teenagers aged 13 to 17 spend more than 30 hours a week, outside school, using computers and other web-connected devices the Baroness asked three questions:

  1. What is the impact of social networking sites on interpersonal skills and personal identity? The psychologist Sherry Turkle, from MIT, has argued persuasively in her recent book Alone Together that the more continuously connected people are in cyberspace, paradoxically the more isolated they actually feel.
  2. Are video games harmful? Neuropsychological studies suggest that frequent and continued playing might lead to enhanced recklessness, reduced attention spans and even possible addiction. A survey of 136 reports using 381 independent tests and conducted on more than 130,000 participants concluded that video games led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggression and a decrease in prosocial behaviour.
  3. Can the internet actually improve cognitive skills and learning, as has been argued? Or as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt says “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information-and especially of stressful information-is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that”.

There is so much change happening right now that try as it might it is not practical for any government to manage. It is perhaps worth trying to understand the effects of this change and Baroness Greenfield is proposing that we do this. Whether we could do anything useful with this understanding is another issue.

There has always been change. Lord Hill of Oareford reminded us of Socrates, who was worried about the invention of writing because he was afraid that people would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful”. Should we have heeded the Greek philosopher’s caution and abandoned the written form?

The problem really is that this change is happening so quickly and on such a large scale that all we can really do is brace ourselves – find the right sized surfboard and catch that wave.

In keeping with the attention span of its subject matter demographic the Hansard record of this short debate is correspondingly brief and makes an interesting quick read. You might even be impressed by the knowledge of some of its participants who appear to have gathered much of the material for the debate by reading books as opposed to flitting across the world wide web.

Published by Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of trefor.net, writer, poet, philosopherontap.com

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