Susan Greenfield: people of the book vs people of the screen


Reason 19561 that I like working in a university.

Tuesday night I walked about 500 metres from my office to hear Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield give the Annual Sir Walter Murdoch Lecture.

Susan Greenfield  is Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She has written several books that make the science of the brain accessible. Her books take the findings of neuroscience outside the lab and into questions about how we live now and will live in the future.

She took  us on a journey where we leaned about the human mind, what shapes it and its plasticity. We considered what it meant to move from a sensate world – of yuk! and wow!- to one where we have developed enough neuroconnectors to understand contextual meaning of objects in our environment. In considering what made us inviolably human, she suggested that an obsession with status is unique to us, but is also causing us misery.

She suggested that maybe our brains are changing in response to technology and that future generations may have very different conceptions of identity, pleasure, generational difference and risk taking. She suggested a “sun rise” scenario where this difference was enriching, and a “sun set” scenario where it was destructive.

One of the contrasts she mentioned was between the “people of the book” and the “people of the screen”. People of the screen have shorter attention spans, are likely to be less risk adverse, emotionally shallower, less likely to be influenced by dogma and spend a lot of time responding to visual stimuli. She did not describe the people of the screen as inferior necessarily, but it seemed to me that she was suggesting  there wasn’t much overlap between people of the book and people of the screen.

I *think* that she was suggesting that the experiences of younger people are changing their brains, so they will have with different patterns of connections between brain cells, thus have inherently different minds. I’m not so sure that there is such a dichotomy. Online games seem to have changed from solitary, simplistic pursuits to very complex social systems that can only be navigated by sustained and rather deep connections and understanding of other players.

Susan Greenfield also mentioned Second Life, but seemed to focus mainly on it as an environment of consumption, without mentioning that the major activity of many, many residents is to use the platform to create. This was particularly interesting, as she suggested toward the end of her talk that creative actions would be a mediating force and redeeming for many people dulled by screen culture.

I was very, very heartened yesterday to read Sue Water’s account of a project that Dean Groom in Sydney is conducting with his Year 9 class. To me it epitomised how education can have a role in synthesising “people of the book” and “people of the screen” to create an integrated individual with strengths from both. Here’s her account:

Dean Groom was nice enough to talk tonight with me about how he uses Second Life with his students. Currently he has thirty year 9 students working on a Shakespeare project to create 2 minute Machinima.

The students have 6 weeks of 1hour per week in class to:

  • Create a story board for their play
  • Make their own outfits for their avatars using Photoshop
  • Build their own set for their play
  • Learn to manipulate their avatars and use the camera to film the performance
  • Film the scenes in Second Life and edit their movie using iMovie where they will add the voice to go with the avatars

Each week the students are required to complete reflective writing — you can check their progress here. The students chosen were those struggling with literacy skills. Not only does this process help them visualise Shakespeare’s work better but they also gain a wide range of other skills including collaboration, leadership and improved digital literacies. Dean also commented that these projects often open up the shy, quiet students who become more confident as a result.

Here is a video of his students working hard — right at the end you will hear two students discussing their set design.

5 thoughts on “Susan Greenfield: people of the book vs people of the screen

  1. I’m really grateful that people like yourself, Dean Groom, Judy O’Connell, Jo Kay and Sean Fitzgerald spent the time demonstrating the true potential of Second Life. I’m in awe of how Dean is using it with his students because they are learning so many amazing skills. To be honest tad jealous and I may have to do some creating just to prove to myself I can 🙂

  2. I’m heartened to hear that example regarding people of the book and people of the screen being able to meet and overlap – it distresses me when there seems to be an underlying assumption that you must choose between them.

What do you think? Let us know.