The Mark, a Canadian magazine publishing on technology and culture, has an interview with Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Oxford Institute for the Future of the Mind (and I believe the only neuroscientist who's a member of the House of Lords). For years, Greenfield has been talking about the negative cognitive impacts of social media and computers, and the interview lays out some of the high points of her argument:
The big question is not whether or not our brains are changing, but whether those changes are good or bad. What kind of minds will we have in the future as a result, and what can we do about it?
We all start off in this sensory world – this confusing, booming, buzzing world where we evaluate things in terms of “how fast, how sweet,” and so on. Gradually these sense impressions become patterns that start to trigger deeper associations that might be, for example, your mother. Forming those connections permits the linking of the mere sensory to deeper cognitive thinking. Our interaction with technology, I believe, is impacting upon the development of that deeper cognitive thinking.
She goes on to talk about cognitive development in children, ideas about privacy-- not stuff that's very unusual for anyone who's followed this debate. (Her Parliamentary testimony in 2010 [PDF] is a more thorough explication of her ideas.) But her conclusion feels a bit disappointing:
What we should do, therefore, is have a debate about what kind of world we want, a rigorous discussion across the broad spectrum of public and private sectors. We need to truly work out how we can shape an environment for the next generations that allows them to develop to their true potential.
Okay, so terms like "across the broad spectrum of public and private sectors" are the sorts of things you say when you spend a lot of time with British civil servants. But I suspect that we don't really need a debate, if by that we an argument around resolutions like "This body resolves that we want a world in which people are smart." (Though I confess I'd love to debate "This body resolves that people should be stupider," or "This body resolves that Web advertisers should monetize our attention in ways that have long-term cognitive consequences.") I think we're past the point of wondering whether the Internet affects our attention spans, or what kinds of minds make for happy people; we know the answers. It's a question of acting on them.