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New Media – Making or Breaking Connections?

The internet and social networking – and the unprecedented access they provide to information, ideas and each other – have revolutionised modern living. They have changed forever the way we learn, communicate and interact. For many, they have enriched and empowered us and extended and strengthened our relationships. But others worry that they undermine our capacity – and in particular that of young people – to engage with the complexities of a real rather than a virtual world, weakened our communication skills and diminished our sense of community.

Two distinguished academics, Professor Susan Greenfield and Professor Stephen Coleman, debate the issues.

Professor Susan Greenfield

Oxford University

Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords.

Specialising in the physiology of the brain, Susan researches the impact of 21st century technologies on the mind, how the brain generates consciousness and novel approaches to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. She appears regularly on radio and television and frequently gives talks to the public and private sector.

Her novel 2121: A Story for the 22nd Century will be published by Head of Zeus in July 2013 and describes a dystopia centred around the impact of extreme technologies on how future generations think and feel.

Since its founding in 1912, the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University has become one of only two 5* rated Pharmacology departments in the UK, with an annual research budget of some £4 million.

The Department incorporates the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit and provides space and research support for approximately 180 scientists, including 50 graduate students and international visitors. The Department’s research is at the highest international level. Scientists are engaged in the investigation of basic questions concerning the interactions of chemical substances with biological systems, increasing our understanding of gene function in living organisms in the post-genomic age.

Professor Stephen Coleman

Leeds University

Stephen Coleman is Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, Honorary Professor in Political Science at the University of Copenhagen and Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

He has served as specialist adviser to the House of Commons Information Select Committee inquiry on ICT and public participation in Parliament, policy adviser to the Cabinet Office, a member of the Royal Society committee on public engagement in science and a member of the Puttnam Commission on parliamentary communication with the public.

He has written extensively on issues relating to public participation, democratic deliberation and interactive media technologies. His latest book, published by Cambridge University Press, is How Voters Feel.

Formed in 1988, the Institute of Communications Studies is an internationally renowned centre for teaching and research in communication, media and culture and one of the largest of its kind in Europe.

ICS staff includes academics who are world leaders in their field as well as practitioners whose experience is at the cutting edge of the media and communications industries. Students also benefit from the excellent academic and practitioner networks on which ICS staff draw to enhance their teaching and research practice and from facilities which include a cinema, a new media lab and a television studio as well as editing suites equipped with the latest industry-standard software and hardware.

Proposition

The Challenge of Cyber Culture

Thirty years ago, the term ‘Climate Change’ meant little to most people. Now it is understood by virtually everyone. Today the crucial but perhaps unacknowledged issue is how future generations will think and feel. Investigating ‘Mind Change’ should help us understand how modern technologies are changing the functional state of the human brain.

In this digital age, children routinely spend hours transfixed by their computers while adults are glued to their mobiles. It’s a two-dimensional world of only sight and sound yet offering instant information, connected identity, diminished privacy and experiences so vivid they out-compete the real world of three dimensions and five senses. Humans have the superlative talent to adapt to new environments. We need to know how the brain might be adapting to this new cyber world for only then can we minimise its threats and harness its opportunities.

Some observers portray those born into the new cyber culture as freed from constraints of local mores and hierarchical authority to act autonomously as individual citizens of the world, ‘personalising’ screen-based activities whilst participating in global social networks, information sources and virtual worlds. Others see them as narcissistic, disrespectful of authority and more interested in self-expression and the consumption of easily accessed information than in genuine learning, insight and individuality.

Many of the internet’s advocates claim that there is little evidence to support such pessimism.  But there is already a significant body of scientific literature which demands our attention – and the growing use of apps which enable those sufficiently concerned about their digital dependency to limit their own access to the internet tells its own story. I want to highlight the potential side effects of just three aspects of screen life, social networking, video gaming and reliance on search engines.

Earlier this year, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser in his report Changing Identities in the UK – the Next Ten Years highlighted the implications of changing notions of personal  identity for vast policy areas including social inclusion and mobility, education and skills, crime and mental health.

These changes have been evident for some time. Research by OFCOM in 2008 found that 49% of 8-17 year-old internet users have social networking profiles.  In the US, studies have reported that on a typical day 40% of young people spend an average of almost an hour on a social networking site.  Yet a growing literature suggests that the more people are connected online, the more isolated they feel.

A Rutgers University study of 350 Twitter users identified two groups, ‘Meformers’ who posted endless updates on their own thoughts and ‘Informers’ who shared information and interacted more with followers. Worryingly, 80% of the subjects were classified as ‘Meformers’. Other studies of Facebook users suggest that individuals higher in narcissism and lower in self-esteem spend more time on the site and post more self-promotional content.

Social networking’s impact on self-esteem may depend on whether it is used to maintain a friendship formed in the real world or to allow the passive observer to look in on a privileged world from which he/she is excluded and where the lives of others become more important than personal experiences.

Though nothing beats face-to-face interaction for generating empathy, a phone call would still trump a text or an email. Yet younger people still prefer to text, according to some surveys by a factor of two to one. Someone, somewhere is always available and you can say anything you like to them without accountability or embarrassment.

But perhaps that’s also why one recent study of data collected over 30 years from 1,400 Michigan State University students indicates that levels of empathy may be declining, and especially steeply in the last 10 years. A correlation is not a causal link but this is just the type of finding that requires epidemiology to establish whether screen time can undermine human relationships.

Playing action videogames has been associated with enhancements in vision, attention, cognition and motor control. But prolonged playing could also have negative affects. Indeed, a recent survey found that 75% of 400 British teachers reported a significant decline in attention spans, attributable in part to too much screen time, including gaming. Moreover, brain imaging research has suggested that frequent video-gaming could lead to an enlargement of the part of the brain which releases dopmamine, a feature of all psycho-active addictive drugs.

Although violent games have not been proved directly to cause criminally violent behaviour, evidence suggests that compulsive playing may increase low-grade hostility.  In video games actions do not have real consequences: a character you’ve just shot can become obligingly un-dead: you can be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the real world.

Reliance on search engines as the primary source of information may also be problematic. Recent research at the University of Oslo found that reading expository texts on a computer screen leads to poorer comprehension than reading the same texts on paper. In my view, it is the reflective ‘making sense’ which accompanies reading that enhances understanding: isolated entries on a screen without narrative are poor conductors of knowledge.

Search engines can help find ‘facts’ or solutions to puzzles. But for more challenging questions about life itself, a personal conceptual framework and a robust and imaginative mind are required.

It is not comforting to imagine a world of individuals who have brilliant sensory-motor coordination, can multi-task and perform well in IQ tests but are reckless, lack empathy, have a dodgy sense of identity and are incapable of really thinking and understanding. Perhaps that’s not the future but we cannot be complacent.

Proposition

New Media - New Opportunities

Like television, the telephone and the printing press before them, new (digital) media neither make nor break social connections. But they certainly make new kinds of relationships possible.

As in the case of earlier media, the extent to which such relationships are positive and enriching is determined by culture rather than technology - by the values we adopt as social animals rather than the tools we use to realise our sociality.

Blaming new media for the atomisation of social life, the low quality of civic discourse, the dullness of global homogeneity or the indecencies of bullies and abusers is to mistake technology for culture. Published manuals on how to spot a witch were not a product of the printing press but of the cultural context in which printing emerged.

I don’t want to argue here that access to the remarkable range of new media that have become available in the last couple of decades has led – or will lead – to a brave new world of enhanced civility, harmony or democracy.

But I do want to argue that  the emergence of the internet has greatly increased the power of voices that were once unable to access the public domain or enter global spaces of communication. It has given relatively low-cost access to a public platform for many (but not all) people who have a story to tell or point of view to state.

Moreover, it has made it easier for people with similar interests and values to coordinate with a view to sharing their experiences, pooling knowledge and taking collective action. It has opened up a space of competing narratives, accounts and explanations that contribute to a levelling of communicative opportunities and a diminution of the power of corporate and state agenda-setters and story-tellers.

I want to argue that one of the foremost blights confronting our contemporary culture is the inequality that exists between those who can express their opinions and tell their own stories in the confidence that they will reach others and those who can’t.

New media contribute in significant ways to redressing the illusion that the only people with anything to say are to be found in broadcast studios, newspaper offices or government buildings. There may well be a lot of communicative froth on Facebook, but there is also a great deal of genuine social interaction, community-building and open discussion.

And it is not as if people who talk to one another online only do so online. All the evidence from recent research suggests that the more connected to others people are online the more they are likely to have friends in the offline world, to be active in their communities, to vote and to feel able to influence their fellow citizens.

Of course, this is a correlation not a cause; but it refutes the notion that people who spend time online are isolated in a world of geeky unsociability.

It might only be very occasionally that an individual uses new media to make connections - just as television viewers might only infrequently derive new knowledge from their viewing experience or book readers might only once or twice in a lifetime read something that changes their worldview. But a technology doesn’t have to make something possible all the time in order to make it possible some of the time.

The argument that new media break or weaken social connections is one that I find strange. Exactly the same anxieties were aired when radio, television, the telephone and the printing press emerged as popular technologies. Each was criticised for diverting humans from face-to-face oral communication and reducing the quality of human contact.

Very often this argument has taken the form of a crude theory about time substitution: ‘if they weren’t online looking at Facebook, they’d be reading Tolstoy or volunteering in the local community’. This is an empirical claim – and, to my knowledge, there is simply no evidence to back it up.

People who read classical novels go online to discuss them. Volunteers find it much easier to coordinate their actions by forming online networks.

People who prefer to gossip over the garden fence can still do so; as can those of us who would rather attend a real political debate, characterised by all the messiness of live voices and bodies that often say more than words can speak, rather than an asynchronous cyber-debate made of text and little more.

It is not a case of new media versus interpersonal immediacy. Indeed, the more that new media become normalised within our culture, the less conscious we are likely to be of the difference between the two.

I do not want to sweep away dismissively the well-known problems commonly associated with online communication: the irresponsibility of anonymous postings, the relative impunity of those who abuse others, the unaccountability of corporate service providers, the risks of impulsive communication and instantaneous message transmission, the scope for surveillance … the list goes on. And it is a list of cultural rather than technological challenges.

The internet is a new medium. The evolution of social protocols takes time. Most states are still governed by elites for whom new media are an exotic and rather frightening challenge to stability.

Rather than committing ourselves to sweeping (and ultimately futile) lamentations about the degeneracy of online communication, should we not steer our energies towards making the new media accountable to the cultural ends that we as a democratic, pluralistic and creative society seek to realise?

In short, as with television half a century ago, the real challenge is not to wish new media away, but to do whatever we can to realise their positive potential.

Response

I’m not persuaded by Stephen’s arguments. First, you cannot divorce technology and culture, as Marshall McLuhan’s oft-cited The Medium is the Message attests. Secondly, the older technologies are not valid analogies since they were a means to an end rather than a whole new lifestyle in themselves.

Thirdly, we can blame the new media for the proliferation in bullying, trolling and stalking: whilst such behaviours may be part of human nature they are only now given free rein by the anonymity and distancing that only the cyber world can offer.

Fourthly, it’s not correct to say that ‘all’ the evidence suggests that the number of your online friends matches those offline. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is just one piece of work that demonstrates the more connected people are online, the more isolated they feel. Indeed, much recent literature suggests that the crucial issue is whether you are using social networking sites to sustain relationships made in the real world or have instead a vast network of ‘friends’ you have never met. If so, as Soraya Mehdizadeh and others suggest, there may be a strong association with narcissism and low self-esteem.

Fifthly, it is sadly an issue of new media versus interpersonal intimacy. We humans are only good at what we rehearse and if we are not rehearsing face to face interpersonal skills, we will be less competent and try to avoid them: witness the trend of texting rather than talking.

No wonder the University of Michigan among others reports an accelerated decline in empathy over the last ten years and that many are revisiting concepts of privacy and identity. Would Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Science Advisor, have commissioned the just published report on the changing nature of identity had he not felt the need to understand better what new media really means for our society? And why would January’s World Economic Forum have flagged the ‘digital wildfire’ of being ‘hyper-connected’ as one of the greatest global risks we face?

Response

Susan paints a scary picture of the digital age and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely. My argument is not whether these features exist, but whether they are generated by the internet – or, indeed, whether the type of strong dependencies of which Susan speaks are ever more than the imagined effects of an unhelpful technological determinism.

Let me turn to Susan’s three effects of what she calls ‘screen life’. The first entails the big claim that the more connected with others people are online the more isolated they feel. The best evidence that I have seen – from researchers including Shah at the University of Wisconsin, Hampton at MIT, De Gennaro and Dutton at the University of Oxford and Quan-Haase and Wellman at the University of Toronto – suggests precisely the opposite: that people who are most networked digitally are most connected to their neighbours and communities.

I would be the first to express concern about the current social ethos of aggressive individualism and the breakdown of traditional solidarities. However, not only are these trends caused by forces largely independent of communication technologies, but it also may well be that new media are actually serving as counters to such atomisation.

Anxiety about videogames belongs to a long line of claims about ‘media effects’ that have all turned out to be rather too simplistic. Just as there is no evidence that watching violent images on television ‘makes’ people violent - as if human agency were so malleable - the best that we can say about videogames is that it would be unwise to play them to the exclusion of all other social activity. And there is no evidence that more than a negligible number of young people do.

Finally, anyone who imagines that search engines are substitutes for critical reflection will be disappointed. But as means of finding resources that might aid critical thinking they are valuable. The Oslo research about diminished comprehension when reading computer screens is bizarre; surely, it’s a question of what one is used to. Brains are, after all, wonderfully adaptable organs.

Conclusion

It would be an understatement to say that there was a debate to be had here. Inevitably the biggest controversy revolves around the basic question of what evidence there might be to support either view.

First, arguments by analogy only work if the analogy is a good one, and neither the printing press nor the TV are. I want to argue that the digital technology is unprecedented in that, unlike other technological forerunners, for many it has become a lifestyle in and of itself.

Just look at the apps and websites that indicate a clear trend in current society.

For example Freedom will block your internet access for an agreed amount of time each hour, whilst Self Control will enable you to black-list and be barred from websites that you are following too slavishly. Why should you need some external service to stop you using the internet unless you were obsessional, even addicted?

Secondly, there are the views of experts, many already articulated in books such as iDisorder by psychiatrist Larry Rosen. There are also surveys of and by professionals such as the Chief Science advisor to the Government and the World Economic Forum to which I referred earlier.

Thirdly, there is the issue of ‘scientific evidence’ itself.

It would be impossible to demonstrate conclusively that screen-based activities were having no effect on the brain or behaviour at all. It might simply be the case that the test you are using isn’t the most appropriate or that the instruments are not sensitive enough or that the effects will be delayed. Needless to say, however, evidence is accumulating on both the beneficial and adverse effects of screen life, for highly specified scenarios and talents: there is no simple, single ‘good or ‘bad’ outcome.

But we cannot escape the obvious fact that every hour spent in front of a screen, however wonderful even beneficial, is an hour not living life in the real world.

The problem lies not with mature and moderate use of digital technologies to enhance this real life but with the possibility that excessive screen time serves as a substitute for it.

Given the evolutionary mandate of the human brain to adapt to the environment, it follows that excessive time spent in an unprecedented type of environment could shape the brain, and hence the mind, in unprecedented ways.

For the first time, en masse, those of us in the developed world have the huge privilege of each stretching ourselves to our unique potential to be a fulfilled and worthwhile individual. Surely we need to reclaim the current technology from being an end in itself instead to be a means to this end.

Identifying what that end might look like is the biggest challenge of all.

Conclusion

In summary, I would argue that it makes more sense to act constructively to make social changes work in our collective interest than to lament and wish them away.

Let me respond very briefly to Susan’s five points.

1. She’s right:  you can’t divorce technology from culture. But imagining that the former shapes the latter is mistaken.

2. As with earlier ‘communication revolutions’, exaggerated claims have been made about the anti-social effects of digital media. Such claims always fail to register the ways in which people adapt technologies to their own purposes.

3. Why on earth should a medium or technology be ‘blamed’ for malign human intentions? This is surely like blaming cars for drunk drivers.

4. No: Turkle’s book is not a quantitative study on the basis of which such generalisations can be made. It is a very interesting account of how life online affects Turkle’s selected interviewees. In contrast, the studies that I have cited offer more substantiated and nuanced generalisations, based on representative samples of the population.

5. What Susan calls ‘the trend of texting rather than talking’ is a headline rather than a scientific observation. There is no evidence to suggest that a) people who send text messages talk less than others or b) that interpersonal talking is in decline.

As I have argued, I don’t think that sweeping, Panglossian claims for the positive social value of digital media will serve us any better than alarmist, unsubstantiable claims about how the internet is destroying human connection.

Clearly, there are some very impressive examples of how hitherto dispersed and disempowered social groups have used the relatively inexpensive access to global communication afforded by the internet to make new friends and allies, join in positive collective action, offer a different slant on stories that affect them and transcend global distances that had once weakened them.

On a more parochial level, digital technologies provide opportunities for the lonely or housebound to make contact with others, for learners of all ages to access educational material, for communities to archive their memories and for people to coordinate face-to-face sociability (because, contrary to myth, internet users’ best friends are not their PCs).

Conversely, there are the horror stories that exercise Susan. Some concern criminal activity, best addressed by good policing rather than trying to univent the internet and some will be eradicable if we can nurture habits of online civility.

My key argument, then, is not that digital media ‘makes’ good things happen or that they should be ‘blamed’ for bad things, but that they are now an embedded part of our lives and, as with all products of human invention that have uncertain consequences, we should make them work for us.