When Professor Susan Greenfield warned last month of the damaging effects of new technologies on childhood, my first instinct was to dismiss it as another hand-wringing exercise. On one point, though, where she complains of the dangers of instant gratification, she might be right. I’m not even sure the problem is confined to children. One trait I notice in myself as a result of using computers is a growing impatience with the real world.
The millions of us who spend hours each day working or playing with technology have become dangerously at home in an environment where everything happens at a pace we choose. Like the Roman centurion in Luke’s gospel who can ‘say unto this man, “Go” and he goeth; to another, “Come,” and he cometh’, we click ‘Send’ and the email goeth, or ‘Search’ and the answer googleth. Just as army officers become irascible in retirement, unable to cope in a world where they are no longer unquestioningly obeyed, so it is with computer users: we find ourselves drumming our fingers impatiently at the most inconsequential delays of everyday life. The problem is worse in the young: one teenager quoted in a research study complained that ‘The trouble with McDonald’s is it’s far too slow.’ I now get grumpy at Starbucks if someone in the queue orders a frappuccino; I get mildly anxious when away from a PC because I don’t like having to wait more than three seconds to find out some minor fact — just now I had to go online to check the spelling of frappuccino.
I miss the self-discipline of the pre-digital world, too. When presentations and papers needed to be prepared in advance, people learned to prioritise work instead of meddling with everything until the last moment. The analogue world was also full of blissful periods of enforced idleness while your work was being typed or your presentation mounted onto slides. These are gone. Might the financial crisis have been smaller had life contained more natural pauses?
Greenfield also takes issue with games and online social networks. ‘I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may give way to these sanitised screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,’ she explains, bizarrely equating real conversation with the kind of thing Jeffrey Dahmer enjoyed on one of his quieter evenings. I’m less happy with this line of criticism. It’s daft to criticise social networking as a poor version of face-to-face contact when it so obviously complements it. And what’s so great about real-life socialising, anyway? Drinks parties, for instance, are often rubbish: you have to stand up for hours, you can’t hear a word anyone says, the wine’s bilge and, since the smoking ban, there are no telltale clouds of smoke to help you spot the interesting people. Give me Twitter any day.
Her attack on computer games is less silly — but not very discriminating. Some games involve ‘fight-or-flight’ orgies of random violence but the best are great tests of mental reasoning. One, World of Goo, is almost a work of art. Bracketing all computer games together is as absurd as suggesting all real games are the same; as though there were no difference between chess and KerPlunk.