A DIGITAL HOUSE OF LORDS

How often does Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired magazine and Silicon Valley utopian technophile par excellence, get quoted in the British House of Lords?

It happened on April 20, 2006, in a provocative Lords speech by Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford university and expert on the physiology of the brain. In questioning the multi-tasking, screen centric culture of contemporary British youths, Greenfield quotes Kelly's observations about screen culture:

"Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits, news headlines and floating first impressions. Notions don't stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by the audience".

My guess is that Kelly wrote these words in praise of the flattened "democratic" nature of digital culture. But Baroness Greenfield uses Kelly's remarks much more critically. For her, the "constant flux" of digital culture has the potential to become an educational catastrophe. She told the Lords that most English kids simply aren't prepared for the onslaught of digital imagery, that they don't possess the "robust conceptual framework" to cope with the intense sensory content of a multimedia presentation.

Greenfield is not a luddite and doesn't suggest that we should dismiss or ban technology. But she is calling for a more thoughtful government policy toward the place of technology in the 21st century school. She wants the classroom to "fit" the child rather than "the growing trend for technology to be used to make the 21st century child fit the classroom."

She tells us that "the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event." Greenfield is warning us of the impact of sensory imagery upon the brain of the child. If most kids don't have the "conceptual framework" to cope with this multimedia culture, she tells us, then we risk either a "monotonously homogeneous world" or a "society of techno haves increasingly divergent from the techno have-nots."

Baroness Greenfield is one more distinguished voice -- to add to Zizek and Habermas and American thinkers like Hubert Dreyfus, Christine Rosen and Albert Borgmann -- questioning the cultural, political and social benefits of digital technology. The real digital divide of the 21st century will be between these technosceptics and techno-utopians like Kevin Kelly, Thomas Friedman and Chris Anderson. This massively important debate may turn out to be the new left/right division of our age.

For more on Greenfield's speech, see Jackie Ashley's column in yesterday's online Guardian.