A LEADING philosopher once warned that technological developments in communications would impair memory and other cognitive functions, giving us access to huge quantities of information but depriving us of the wisdom needed to understand them.
You might think the subject of that diatribe was Google, but actually that was Socrates on a dangerous new technology called writing.
The irony of course is that we only know what he had to say on the subject because his friend Plato wrote it down.
Concern about new technologies destroying human minds and relationships probably didn’t start with Socrates and it certainly didn’t end there.
The growth of newspapers in the 18th century prompted French statesman and chief censor Malesherbes to rail against newspapers that they “socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit”.
I’m sure we all miss that source of news.
As with previous technological changes, much of the anxiety around the online world we now inhabit focuses on youth, whose brains are apparently going to be rotted by their interactions with screens.
One of the most prominent doomsayers has been Baroness Susan Greenfield, a research fellow in neuroscience at Oxford University.
“I just wonder whether we might be looking at a generation who are completely self-centred, short attention spans, not very good at communication, rather needy emotionally and with a weak sense of identity”, she told the ABC News last year.
“As a neuroscientist I am very aware that the brain adapts to its environment — if you’re placed in an environment that encourages, say, a short attention span, which doesn’t encourage empathy or interpersonal communication, which is partially addictive or compulsive … all these things will inevitably shape who you are.”
Children, she warned, were less likely to use their imaginations in the digital age and — echoing Socrates — “the issue is that information isn’t knowledge … you can be bombarded with endless information, endless facts, but if you can’t make sense of them one fact is the same as any other fact”.
It all sounds pretty catastrophic, but is there evidence children’s brains are actually being “rewired” in these negative ways?
Not everybody thinks so. Researchers of the psychological impacts of digital technology argue in an editorial in The BMJ that Greenfields’s claims “are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large”.
Greenfield’s claims have largely been aired in the media, despite repeated calls for her to publish them in peer-reviewed journals, they write.
They cite a number of studies focused on computer games, social networking, and search engine use that appear to give a far more nuanced picture.
A review of studies examining adolescent use of social networking sites such as Facebook, for example, found many positive impacts including enhanced peer relationships and opportunities to connect, alongside negatives ones such as pressure to reveal personal information and exposure to negative comments.
Another article, looking at the impact of search engines on our ability to remember, suggested we might be using our memories differently but we were still using them. “We are becoming symbiotic with our computers tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found”, those researchers wrote.
The BMJ editorialists are not arguing the digital entwining of our lives is without risk.
However, a focus on the sinister-sounding rewiring of our brains perhaps obscures more real concerns, not least the impact of excessive screen time on rising rates of childhood obesity.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.