This week's big questions: Has state spying gone too far? Who should be on our banknotes?

This week's big questions are answered by author and scientist, Susan Greenfield


Your forthcoming novel is about a future dystopia caused by “extreme technologies”. How worried are you that this is where humanity is heading?

I am most worried that we are not asking where we are headed. In the developed world, a child born now has a one-in-three chance of living to be 100. After a career is established and a family raised, what will they do with the second half of their lives? I think we need to explore all the options that a longer life span and increased leisure time are giving us, thanks to technology. In my novel, I try to project forward to imagine extreme and opposing possibilities a century or so from now.

There are specific anxieties at the moment about online pornography. How do we deal with this problem?

Pornography is surely a problem when it involves or impacts on anyone other than consenting adults. The short-term goal can only be to introduce adult opt-in procedures for anyone wishing to indulge in this kind of entertainment/activity. In the longer term, it would be better, although perhaps idealistic, to hope that we could explore why some people need this kind of outlet, how it relates to their own self-esteem and identity, and how we might be able to shape an environment for an attractive alternative – but then that is the neuroscientist in me speaking, with an endless fascination for how our brains make us the individuals that we are.

Revelations about state surveillance are coming thick and fast. If governments can spy on their citizens, isn’t it inevitable that they will?

As always there is a trade-off, as has been said by many, between privacy and safety. However, I think we are now living in a culture where identity and relationships are already increasingly constructed and enacted out externally in cyberspace, and perhaps privacy for many is no longer the premium it once was. If so, then the temptation, indeed the culture to know everything about everyone, could continue uncontested.

Was Julia Gillard judged on her performance or her gender?

Julia Gillard herself commented that gender didn’t have “nothing” to do with it, nor “everything”. I’m sure that is probably the most accurate summary. What amazed me more than anything were the strong sexist views aired by some participants in a radio phone-in programme on the subject.

George Osborne thinks he can keep cutting his way to “recovery”. Is he right?

Neuroscientists are not known for their great insights into economics. As someone once said: “For every complex situation there is always a simple solution – and it’s always wrong.” That said, I can’t help thinking that an atmosphere that is unremittingly punitive without any significant opportunities or new ideas for individuals to set in train positive innovations can only be demoralising. I’d like to see some visionary schemes for helping young people to have careers that are not always dependent on a university education. One idea would be to pair school-leavers, who are hi-tech savvy, with baby boomers, who have a lifetime of entrepreneurial experience, to develop business ideas that neither could have achieved unilaterally.

Universities are racing to adapt to the needs/wishes of the tuition-fee generation. How do you view this development?

The issue here follows on from the answer to the previous question. We really do need to think about the skills needed for mid-21st-century society and how best to meet them, as well as catering for the personal talents of the young person in question. I think it’s certainly a mistake for someone who is not of an academic disposition to spend three years studying for a degree that they may not enjoy and which lands them in debt. Rather than focus just on the issue of tuition fees, we should broaden the debate to vocational and business-based alternatives.

From the Care Quality Commission to the Met Police, public bodies appear to be looking after their own first, and citizens second. Is that a thesis you subscribe to?

It’s perhaps inevitable that those in the public sector will be mindful of their own positions. There can be a mentality that “blame mustn’t stick to me” and a resultant response to turn to others, to procrastinate, or to just do anything to maintain the status quo. I feel that this is a trend widely taking hold where emphasis has shifted from an individual accountability for accepting both culpability and credit to one of a committee-based culture that is satisfied with “system failure”.

Should Jane Austen appear on our banknotes? Who would your other nominations be?

Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin, pictured left, would be two British women scientists to whom I think more tribute could be paid. I have also been a great admirer of Queen Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher but realise that neither would be eligible! I wonder whether Boudicca is sufficiently ancient to qualify; if not, then it would be great to think of more contemporary women who would embody the spirit of all of those above.

What lessons do you draw from the record numbers attending the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum?

It’s great that large numbers are actively seeking new insights and experiences in the 3D real world rather than just sitting in front of the screen.

Baroness Greenfield is the author of numerous science books. Her first novel, ‘2121: A Story for the 22nd Century’, is published next month by Head of Zeus

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