Andrew Keen: The peer who's opened the debate on the internet and the mind

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The Independent Online

It's not often that I get asked by a Baroness to make a public appeal on her behalf. But then Baroness Greenfield is no ordinary Life Peer. 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 last week. "An appeal for a serious public debate which explores both the good and bad impact of the internet on children's brains."

Lady Greenfield did sound just a tad bruised. Not for the first time in her storied life, she had incited a huge controversy about the way media technology is affecting the human condition. It began with a speech she made to the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, when she suggested that social networking websites were having a significant impact on the way in which children's brains functioned.

The speech got picked up by the Daily Mail which, Lady 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 around the blogosphere and finding its way on to BBC's Newsnight where, Lady Greenfield asserted, Dr Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame unfairly personalised the issue around her own scientific credibility.

Not that Lady Greenfield regretted giving the speech. The whole point of being in the House of Lords, she explained, was to "instigate debate".

So what exactly did she mean to say? The pugilistic Life Peer wants us to accept two 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 the good and the bad" consequences of new media on the brains of children and adults.

While Lady Greenfield 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 ability to consume media metaphorically and symbolically. In replacing the 3D environment of real life with the D world of online social networks, Lady Greenfield worries that we are in danger of sacrificing our ability to make friends and to empathise with other human beings.

For all her hostility toward social media, the Baroness wants to talk. She requested that I help her co-ordinate a public debate about these issues at the Royal Institution. So if you want to take her on, please email me ( ak@ajkeen.com). Then we can begin a really serious public debate about the impact of the internet on our brains.

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