Old People Need to Stop Telling Us That the Internet Is Ruining the World
Jul 8 2013
Baroness Susan Greenfield. (Photo via)
Baroness Susan Greenfield, a controversial neuroscientist, has an idea. It’s been hard to pin down exactly what that idea is, because rather than publishing a proper explanation of it, she’s spent the last few years promoting scare-stories about the wickedness of modern technology in the tabloid press. Greenfield – a 65-year-old who claims never to have visited Facebook, she loathes it that much – usually spends her days writing articles for the Daily Mail. In them, she routinely accuses technology of turning the latest generation of teens and twenty-somethings into feeble mouth-breathers who'd sacrifice their physical, mental and sexual health for a hearty broadband connection.
It's the sort of baseless, hysterical rhetoric you're probably well used to by now: “Facebook and Twitter are creating a vain generation of self-obsessed people with a child-like need for feedback,” “social websites harm people's brains," that kinda stuff. Inevitably, this leads – among other things – to “the fragmentation of our culture”.
However, as people like Dr Ben Goldacre and Professor Dorothy Bishop have pointed out on numerous occasions, her statements are pretty vague on detail and tend not to be backed up by any direct scientific evidence. In 2010, Goldacre issued an exasperated plea to the Baroness: “You have a responsibility to your peers and most importantly the public to present your theory clearly and formally in an academic journal.”
It’s taken three years, but Greenfield has finally responded. Well, sort of, in lieu of doing any actual research she's sat down and written a shonky science fiction novel. It's a disease vector for stupidity.
Some feeble, fickle human brains (Photo via)
When writing a book set centuries in the future, one of the big challenges is explaining that world to the reader. Greenfield achieves this by introducing the protagonist with the evocative opening line: “My name is Fred,” from which point Fred inexplicably launches into a history of the last century, almost as if he knows that he’s writing for an audience in 2013.
It turns out a lot of bad stuff happened. We learn that climate change was easily fixed using sensible laws like “banning all cars”, but that nobody – apart from Greenfield, obviously - realised a much bigger threat was coming. “The skills honed by video-gaming and information processing gradually edged out those other human talents, such as understanding and wisdom.” Internet porn became so good we stopped having sex. Social networks replaced physical contact. Soon, everyone stopped thinking and turned into mindless, sexless hedonists, trapped in a limited two-dimensional virtual world. And it was all because of Mark fucking Zuckerberg.
At some point along the line, society fragmented into two groups of people. The elites – the "Neo-Puritans", or "N-Ps" – spotted what was happening and led everybody to a new land behind some convenient mountains that were inaccessible to normal people for reasons that are never really explained. Safe in their mountain kingdom, they banned screens outside the workplace and lived like arrogant technocratic monks, avoiding any sort of over-stimulation and probably eating sugar-free All-Bran every day for breakfast.
The rest of our descendants – imaginatively named "The Others" – wander the streets dancing and getting distracted by shiny lights. They became unable to comprehend words like "knowledge", yet are still able to develop and maintain technologies far in advance of anything we have today.
Facebook, the scourge of modern society and the catalyst for a sexless world.
Through alternating chapters, we follow the narration of Fred, an enlightened Neo-Puritan neuroscientist; Zelda, an unusually intelligent Other; Hodge, another N-P scientist senior to Fred and a couple more minor characters. None of this really matters, for within a few chapters it becomes painfully obvious that Susan Greenfield’s book is little more than a fan-fiction about Susan Greenfield. The narrators are lifeless caricatures devoid of any real voice or personality of their own, and seem to exist solely for the purpose of regurgitating Greenfield’s theories over endless pages of mind-numbingly tedious exposition.
Take this passage, for example: “Most transformations have been gradual, hardly noticed, but cataclysmically fundamental to the way we now live. As technology has increasingly provided for us, so first our muscle power and then our brainpower has become barely necessary for devising the means by which we are sheltered and fed. We remain permanently like children from earlier eras.”
Those words could have come straight from one of Greenfield’s Daily Mail articles, but they were supposedly spoken by the character Zelda from the unthinking, hedonistic "Other" culture. Again, though, this doesn't really matter: In Susan Greenfield’s world, everybody admits that Susan Greenfield is right.
The scientist character speaks like Susan Greenfield. The other scientist character speaks like Susan Greenfield. The hedonist characters speak like Susan Greenfield pretending to be slightly stoned. Whole chapters pass by where nothing much happens other than a thinly-veiled Susan Greenfield avatar explaining, in excruciating detail, every minute facet of how this world works. The effect is like watching a child sitting on an imaginary throne, gathering all their cuddly toys at their feet before putting on a funny voice and getting their teddy bears to deliver them obsequious compliments.
Several chapters of clumsy world-building pass, before a plot suddenly appears with the suddenness of a bird flying into a window – its carcass splattered haphazardly over a couple of pages of awkward monologue from a character we’ve never seen before.
Another dubious imagining of the future. (Image via)
Here’s the plot: For reasons that were unclear to me – possibly because, by this point, I was only reading every third word in an effort to get to the end – some government guy decides that The Others are a problem (aren’t they always) that needs fixing right now. He reckons that there are three possible solutions: change their brains to be more like N-Ps, keep them as pets or commit a casual act of genocide. Hodge – the senior N-P scientist – is put in charge of trying to implement the least ridiculous of those three options, on the strange basis that genocide would be beyond 22nd century technology and the fact that nobody wants an idiotic human as their child’s pet. Tedium ensues.
The rest I’ll spare you. Fred wanders into the world of "The Others", because "more research required", and inevitably becomes far more tangled in their lives than he anticipated. Naturally, this includes fucking one of the uncomprehending subjects, Sim, which gives Greenfield an opportunity to write one of the weirdest sex scenes I’ve ever read.
“Fred was already loosening the Helmet strap with the other hand that wasn’t angling my chin," Sim begins. Asked by Fred to remove her "dress thing", Sim then explains, “It was still stranger now to step outside of my garment. I only did so in the wash-waste, and never outside.”
Then they have sex, at which point Fred realises that Sim may not actually know what sex is, which carries the awkward and tragically unexplored implication that Fred is actually a rapist.
“Sim,” asks Fred, “do you know what we’ve just done?”
“I think so. I think the Fact-Totum says it’s what people used to do before the reproduction programs made everything so much easier.”
As a work of fiction, this reads like something devised by Floyd Mayweather Jr after ten rounds. But how does the science stand up? The answer is… it doesn’t, because there isn’t really much science to be found. Last year, I wrote about the elusive hypothesis of Susan Greenfield, saying at the time that, for all her talk about modern technology damaging our brains, she’s incredibly vague about what exactly her theory is: “As far as I can understand it,” I complained, “Greenfield's hypothesis is that an unquantified level of exposure to an unspecified subset of modern technologies may be affecting an indeterminate number of people's brains in an undefined way, with a number of results.”
Greenfield talking about "mind change", the term she coined to describe how computers are changing our brains.
What kind of technology? What sort of damage? How? For years now, Greenfield has refused to be pinned down by these sorts of questions, and it’s more than a little convenient that by setting her book more than a century into the future she can mostly ignore them. Technology has somehow melted human brains to the point where we don’t even enjoy sex any more. How? Why? Who cares – it happened, and the people who said it wouldn’t were stupid and wrong.
People often ask me why Greenfield bothers me so much – it’s because I’m sick and tired of watching middle-aged, middle-class reactionaries direct torrents of thoughtless abuse at my generation. Her book is little more than a catalogue of absurd prejudices directed by a 62-year-old at a generation she seems pig-headedly uninterested in engaging with, refusing to read blogs or look at Facebook. "I don't have to go bungee-jumping to have an opinion on it," she told the Independent, when asked if she should try visiting the site just once.
According to this person who's never legitimately interacted with us, we are becoming stupid, impulsive, violent, socially incompetent and unable to think properly or plan ahead. We are increasingly addicted to screens and trapped in a limited two-dimensional universe of instant gratification. Apparently we’re even losing our desire for sex, which is certainly news to my penis. It’s hard to see how anyone who actually speaks to people under the age of 35 could take this seriously, but then I suppose there will always be people who are scared by the world changing into something they no longer fully understand.
Apparently humanity is in decline, and my generation proves it. “Most people,” Greenfield told the Independent, “agree with what I'm saying." My response to Greenfield and her friends, as a 31-year-old watching my peers struggle to gain a foothold in a world built by baby-boomers like Greenfield, is a resounding “fuck you”.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins
Previously - I Watched Homeopathy Fanatics Protest in London