Susan Greenfield: Tale of a terrible reckoning

The Oxford Times: Writer and scientist: Professor Susan Greenfield Writer and scientist: Professor Susan Greenfield

Reg Little talks to eminent scientist Professor Susan Greenfield about a first foray into fiction

There may be no ferocious rats and Big Brother but the future envisaged by Professor Susan Greenfield is distinctly chilling.

Perhaps we have known it all along, but a terrible reckoning lies ahead for all this fun we have been having on Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and computer games.

For a long time now the celebrated brain scientist has been warning that living so much of our lives in front of screens will come at a price — you simply cannot go on saturating the human brain with all this cyber stuff without it changing how we think and feel.

But now the Oxford University professor of pharmacology has given free rein to her darkest fears about where all this cyber living could be leading in her first novel, 2121 (Head of Zeus £14.99).

Coming from anyone else, 2121 might strike you as something produced by a well-informed technophobe, heartily fed up with bad blogging, children online gaming instead of reading and people tweeting instead of talking.

But coming from a woman who knows so much about how the human brain works, we are talking the stuff of nightmares.

Prof Greenfield, who was made Baroness Greenfield of Otmoor in 2001, has dedicated more than 30 years trying to find treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

She secured her place as Britain's most prominent female scientist, long before becoming the first woman director of the Royal Institution in London.

But such success, coupled with her television work and best-selling books popularising such weighty matters as the meaning of consciousness, seems to have stirred almost as much envy as respect among academics.

But that may be as nothing compared with the anger she has stirred amongst IT professionals, bloggers and Internet addicts for her take on what happens when the human mind meshes with new technology.

Her novel, set just over 100 years from now, imagines a future in which humanity has been ruined by technology, and people made slaves to their machines.

The world is made up of ageless, beautiful hedonists, enjoying themselves in a hyper-real cyber-driven world, living inside domes playing video games, where every day is the same and pain is unknown.

But there is another group, the Neo-Puritans, governed by logic, who wear grey clothes and dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits.

“It is a dystopian novel,” said Prof Greenfield. “There is a note of warning of what might happen, without saying it is good or bad. What many people may have thought is that it’s a critique to push my highly publicised views on the brain and technology. But I like to see it more as a leap of imagination.”

Caricature it may be, but in the afterword she readily notes that the societies and people her imagination has conjured could yet be “the all to inevitable outcomes of the 21st-century lifestyle”.

The influence of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 is obvious. Apart from the title being a date (2121 was intended as a play on 20-20 perfect vision, with the idea of going even beyond the optimal state), the novel is even dedicated to ‘Winston’ — although this Winston is a close friend who died last year, rather than Orwell’s central character in 1984.

She began work on 2121 on the day of the last General Election, during a visit to America. Jet-lagged and unable to sleep she pulled out the laptop to realise a long-held ambition.

“As a kid I loved stories. I had a younger brother and I loved making stories up for him,” she said, speaking at her office in Mansfield Road.

Although she read classics at university, the transition to non-scientific writing proved “slow and painful” she admits.

The professor certainly took to heart the maxim ‘speak to what you know’, making her central character, Fred, a brain expert.

It may be a work of fiction, but many of the ideas Fred expresses on pleasure, child development and home life could easily have come from his creator’s non-fiction books — not least when he muses on the power of thought and the uniqueness of each individual human mind.

“We must never ever again lull ourselves into a complacency that it is inviolate,” Fred warns us.

Prof Greenfield, 62, has long maintained that the human brain is shaped by experiences, with the serious risk of it being reshaped by excessive visual stimulation.

She conjures an image of our young people sitting in front of the screens for hour after hour.

“What is it that they now write, YOLO (You only live once)? God, is that what we fought wars for, is that what Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for? It is quite possible for people to spend their whole lives in cyberspace, apart from the biological needs of urinating and eating.

“I’m not calling for brakes to be put on. It is a question of how we harness the wonderful opportunities such as easy access to information and ease of communication. The technology must be a means to an end, not the end in itself.”

Her warnings that children’s attention spans are being shortened and we are all becoming self-centred and addicted to instant gratification, because of Facebook and Twitter, have led to claims that her headline-grabbing views are not backed by firm scientific evidence.

But critics demanding from her an academic paper proving that computer games, the Internet and social media are changing the human brain, simply do not understand how serious science works, she argues.

Thirty years ago, the term ‘climate change’ meant little to most people, she says.

And, as with climate change, ‘mind change’ is going to involve a diverse range of disciplines and experts.

Her website now includes links to latest publications on social networking, gaming and surfing and next year will see the publication of her new book, Mind Change, which will pull together latest thinking on the issue.

She shakes her head when I mention the reports of rape and death threats from Twitter users against Caroline Criado-Perez, who persuaded the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on a new bank note.

“It isn’t the Internet that makes people turn into bullies or monsters. But it does create an opportunity to bring out the worst in people, with no constraints from law or the normal behaviour constraints when you meet someone face to face.”

Given her high profile as a woman scientist unafraid to comment on social media or be photographed wearing mini-skirts, you do wince at what might await if she were ever to become a tweeter.

In fact, she has herself faced accusations of bullying herself at the time of her sudden departure from the Royal Institution, amid suggestions that the 211-year-old charity was facing vast debts because of the refurbishment of its London premises.

A prolonged power struggle ended with Prof Greenfield settling out of court after dropping her sexual discrimination case against the Institution.

“It was an unpleasant experience but I learnt a huge amount from it. I learnt about values and the importance of trust,” she said.

“I personally felt I had done what I was asked to do to raise the money for the refurbishment.

“It is not the case that I bullied everyone into spending £20m. What charity would allow a neuroscientist to take over a building project?”

But then if things had gone differently at the Royal Institution, there would have been less progress towards an eventual treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, no venture into science fiction, and no Fred.

Perhaps her high profile, combative reputation and boldness in predicting mankind’s future made the ferocity of some reviews inevitable.

But it will be several lifetimes before anyone knows whether Prof Greenfield has produced in 2121 the ultimate cautionary tale.

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