Arrested Development and the Internet

Who says that peers of the realm are anachronistic? Who claims that the House of Lords is a vestige of privilege and indolence? The Baroness of Ot Moor has written a book, a practical tome too, indeed a rare vessel of common sense. Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change is a courageous broadside at cyber culture, a dose of reality therapy for the Internet, social networks, video gaming, cyber gadgets, and the damage they might do to malleable, developing minds.

The key word is minds, not brains, mind you. You can think of your brain as a mind only if it has a personality. Clearly, cyber millennials have brains, but Susan’s lament suggests the jury might still be out on adult personalities. Greenfield is concerned for the most part about the growth of self, not cells.

The timing of the Greenfield book is auspicious. This is indeed the Year of the Goat, an appropriate moment to reflect on cyber herding and associated cultural, political, and religious recidivism. In short, the baroness uses child development as a cautionary tale about isolation, digital conformity, social retreat, and intimations of infantilism that might be nurtured in the virtual nursery that is Internet culture.

Much of Greenfield’s analysis is anecdotal, a rare and refreshing approach for a neuroscientist practicing her trade at Oxford University. Back in the day, the Baroness of Finchley chided social engineers that “eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Now another lady peer chastises cyber science about the cultural hazards of digital distortion, the electronic alteration of individual and collective consciousness.

As with Margaret Thatcher, London’s loopy Left, the Guardian in particular, has unsheathed the long knives for the Greenfield hypothesis. Alas, prudent arguments about restraint, especially those which feature common sense, are anathema to the progressive worldview.

The Guardian is a forum for much of the socialist flotsam of the late great Communist collapse -- and that might include the entire Cockburn family going back to Admiral Sir George, the nearsighted tar who torched Baltimore and Washington, DC in a pyric, if not Pyrrhic, quest to preserve empire. The Guardian is the gatekeeper of genuine progressive (nee Hegelian/Marxist) values in England in the same sense that Bonnie and Clyde were investment bankers in America.

Most recently, the Guardian was one of the journals that helped to popularize the “Arab Spring” and other sectarian bloodbaths. How fish wrap on the Left squares reason, science, and antisemitism with theocratic fascism is a mystery to logicians and political philosophers everywhere.

Angst at The Guardian seems to revolve superficially around peer review, as if Susan Greenfield had any peers at the Guardian. Peer review in journalism and science is not unlike a panel in a judicial proceeding, a crew composed of underemployed tossers not smart enough to avoid jury duty. Lawyers and judges do not serve on juries for good reasons, more to do with time and money rather than justice.  

The peer review whining is more than a bit of a straw man. The Internet and associated gadgetry have only been with us for a few years. Most available personal or social data concerns affectations and afflictions, not effects. All good science begins with hypothesis and Greenfield simply points to some obvious hazards that parents, the Press, teachers, scientists, engineers, and Internet moguls would rather not evaluate. 

Clearly there’s more convenience and profit in Internet advocacy than there is in skepticism such as that offered by the Baroness of Ot Moor.

For parents, the virtual world, like television, serves as an electronic nanny or a surrogate companion. Teens are especially vulnerable. When your son retreats to his room with a smart phone in one hand and his joystick in the other, chances are he is not studying for medical school. When your daughter dumps her latest squeeze on Facebook, chances are she won’t be in the running for Miss Congeniality any time soon. And when either child tunes you out with headphones, you begin to understand why rap rhymes with crap.

Cyber commerce and digital culture is a lot like modern politics and government. More is never enough and bigger is always better. Few politicians get elected on a restraint platform. Pimps earn more than cops for the same reason that lobbyists are more prosperous than parliamentarians. Allowing your child only a flip phone today might be considered deprivation, if not child abuse.

Still, pushback from the Left against Internet restraint probably has darker roots, a rationale that may be consistent with Susan Greenfield’s concerns about digital infantilism and cultural recidivism.

The European Left is still smarting from the collapse of the Soviet phantasm. Socialist successors in the EU are now busy dismantling the sovereign nation/state system in favor of an imperial EU or NATO. The secular Left in the West and the Islamist Right in the East now make common cause as they dismantle borders and regimes with missionary zeal -- albeit with varying visions of Utopia.

Greenfield’s argument is more concerned, however, with the tactical rather than global implications of Internet culture. Indeed, Mind Change is an echo of earlier speculations by psychologist Albert Ellis who coined the homonym “musterbation,” one vowel removed from a similar compulsion. According to Ellis, musterbation is an irrational fixation on things “that must, should, or ought to be done.”

Ellis might have been the first Internet seer. The musterbation basket captures most of the behaviors of concern to the Baroness of Ot Moor. Texting, liking, needing, isolating, updating, tweeting, twerking, surfing, shopping, gaming, gambling, trolling, exhibitionism, voyeurism, anonymous bullying, propaganda, and terror recruitment are just some of the potential “mind changing” memes facilitated by the Worldwide Web.

Withal, the Internet seems to be fertile ground for new addictions, compulsions, neuroses, and psychoses too. Indeed, cyber culture could be rationalized as another job stimulus program -- and another revenue stream for the psychobabble sector: school counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Susan Greenfield makes an interesting distinction between natives and immigrants, pre- internet and post- internet demographics, established and alien cultures if you will. Although Ms. Greenfield doesn’t discuss the real world immigration crisis and related clash of civilizations, it’s difficult not to think of her metaphor in that larger context.

We can agree with Ellis and Greenfield on one phenomenon, cyber culture is at the very least the ideal marketplace for manipulators and musterbators. Flash mobs, knock-out assignations, and terrorism are just three of the more ominous collective pass times enabled by the Internet.

Utopian dreams have many incarnations. The United Nations, the European Union, an Islamic Caliphate, or Twitter are examples. The global village and associated one-world fantasies are the logical descendants of dubious prophets like Mohammed, Marx, Lenin, Fukuyama, and now Zuckerberg.  The Internet internationale as envisioned by Facebook is of a piece with several post-Hegelian social chimeras.

At first glance, it might be a bit of a jolt to see Zuckerberg and al Baghdadi in the same argument, but surely all messianic communitarian prophets are similar to the extent that shepherds and butchers seldom share the fate of their flocks.

Utopian crusaders do not suffer critics gladly for good reason. Susan Greenfield is in the crosshairs because to expose the dark side of the Internet is to question the ethos of digital communitarian humbug. Truth is not just a bitch, today her handmaiden is member of the House of Lords too. Thank you, Susan!

G. Murphy Donovan writes about the politics of national security.