The Baroness wants to talk

It’s not often that I get asked by a Baroness to make a public appeal on her behalf. But then Baroness Susan Adele Greenfield is no ordinary Life Peer of the British House of Lords. Not only is the 58 year-old scientist the Oxford Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology, the Chancellor of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and the Director of the Royal Institution, but she is also the most notorious member of the House of Lords in cyberspace.

“Can you please make an appeal,” she asked me, when we talked earlier this week. “An appeal for a serious public debate which explores both the good and bad impact of the Internet on children’s brains.”

The Baroness did sound just a tad bruised. Not for the first time in her storied scientific career, she had incited a huge international controversy about the way in the latest media technology is impacting the human condition. It began with a speech Greenfield made to the House of Lords last week week when she suggested that social networking websites were having a significant impact on the way in which children’s brains functioned.

The Lords speech got picked up by the Daily Mail which, Greenfield insisted, misrepresented what she actually said. “For the record,” she told me, “Social networks don’t ruin kids brains.” But the story then acquired a media life of its own, buzzing madly around the blogosphere and even finding its way onto BBC’s Newsnight show where, the Baroness asserted, Dr Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame unfairly personalized the issue around her own scientific credibility.

Not that Greenfield regretted giving the speech. The whole point of being in the House of Lords, she explained, was to “instigate debate” and “get attention for her views”.

So what exactly did she mean to say? The pugilistic Life Peer wants us to accept two simple premises. Firstly, that the brain is sensitive to the environment. And, secondly, when the environment changes, so does the brain. She sees this as a critical beginning to a scientific discussion of how electronic media is changing the brain. And then from there, she said, we can “explore both the good and the bad” consequences of new media on the brains of both children and adults.

While the Baroness did acknowledge the possibility that online media was raising our IQ levels, her own subjective views are more pessimistic. The “unprecedented” impact of the Internet, she explained, is that it subverts our age-old ability to consume media metaphorically and symbolically. In replacing the 3D environment of real life with the 2D world of online social networks and computer games, Greenfield worries, we are in danger of sacrificing both our ability to make friends and to empathize with other human beings.

For all her hostility toward social media, the Baroness wants to talk. She requested that I help her coordinate a public debate about these issues at the Royal Institution. So if you want to take her on, please contact me. Then we can all begin a really serious public debate about the impact of the Internet on our brains.