Tag Archives: Susan Greenfield

Books Reviewed 2015

Here is  housekeeping post, collecting all the books reviewed here in 2015.

Looking back at this list, I see that this year saw Terry Pratchette’s last book (a wrenching experience), and new novels by old favorites Stross, Perry, Macguire, Holt, Gaiman, among others. I also read older but still good histories by Goodwin and Graeber. I read several books about banking, Papal and otherwise, and overlapping works about Italy, fictional and (supposedly) real.

Over the year, I reviewed a sampling of important books about contemporary digital life, including cryptocurrency, the “sharing economy”, social media, and “mind change”.   These works covered a spectrum from enthusiasm to dark worry, giving us much to think about. There are many more I did not have time or energy for. (I will say more on this topic in another post)

Throughout 2015 I continued my ongoing investigation of the question, “what is coworking?”, including reviews of two recent (self published) books about coworking by practitioners. (More on coworking in another post.)

Shall I name some “Best Books” out of my list? Why not?

Fiction:

There were so many to pick from. I mean, with Neil Gaiman in the list, how can I choose? But let me mention two that are especially memorable

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Very imaginative and well written, and, for once, not so horribly dark. This book lodged in my memory more than others that are probably equally good.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Published a few years ago, but I didn’t read it until this year. A wonderful, intricate story. The flight of the parrot is still in my memory.

Nonfiction:

There were many important works about digital life, and I shall try to comment on them in another post. But three books that really hit me are:

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
From several years ago, but I didn’t read it until this year. Highly influential on the ‘occupy’ and other left-ish thinking. This is an astonishingly good book, and long form anthropology, to boot. Wow!

Reimagination Station: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space by Lori Kane
An exlectic little self-published book about “home coworking”, which I didn’t know was a thing. Kane walked the walk, and made me think in new ways about community and coworking.

Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs
Unexpected amounts of fun reading this short book. It does an old, graying nerd no end of good to see that at least some of the kids are OK. Really, really, OK.

List of books reviewed in 2015

Fiction

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick
Candy Apple Red by Nancy Bush
Chicks and Balances edited by Esther Friesner and John Helfers
Corsair by James L. Cambias
Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Distress by Greg Egan
Electric Blue by Nancy Bush
Forty Thieves by Thomas Perry
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Koko the Mighty by Kieran Shea
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Rebirths of Tao by Wesley Chu
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Shark Skin Suite by Tim Dorsey
String of Beads by Thomas Perry
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Nine ed. by Jonathan Strahan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Fortress in Orion by Mike Resnick
The Future Falls by Tanya Huff
The Good, the Bad, and The Smug by Tom Holt
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Ultraviolet by Nancy Bush
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
Witches Be Crazy by Logan J. Hunder
Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

Non Fiction

Arrival of the Fittest by Andreas Wagner
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper
Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs
God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner
LaFayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Let’s Be Less Stupid by Patricia Marx
Live Right and Find Happiness by Dave Barry
Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi
Mind Change by Susan Greenfield
Mindsharing by Lior Zoref
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
No More Sink Full of Mugs by Tony Bacigalupo
Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling
Pax Technica by Phillip N. Howard
Peers, Inc by Robin Chase
Reimagination Station: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space by Lori Kane
Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey
The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
The Next Species by Michael Tennesen
The Reputation Economy by Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson
The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan
The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee
Twentyfirst Century Robot by Brian David Johnson
Women of Will:  Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer

 

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Books Reviewed Third Quarter

Books Reviewed Third Quarter

A bit of housekeeping:  here is a list of all the book reviews that appeared in this blog in Q3 2015.  Mostly new or recent releases, with a few old but good thrown in.

Fiction

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick
Chicks and Balances edited by Esther Friesner and John Helfers
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman 
Koko the Mighty by Kieran Shea
Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore  
The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Nine ed. by Jonathan Strahan
The Good, the Bad, and The Smug by Tom Holt
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley 
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu 
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis 

Non fiction

Reimagination Station: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space by Lori Kane
Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper
Let’s Be Less Stupid by Patricia Marx
Mind Change by Susan Greenfield 
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Peers, Inc by Robin Chase
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin 
The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
The Next Species by Michael Tennesen 

 

Book Review: “Mind Change” by Susan Greenfield

Mind Change by Susan Greenfield

Dr. Greenfield is a Neuroscientist and, apparently a (life) member of the UK House of Lords. She has attracted controversy for raising questions about the potential effects of “screen life” on the human brain. Why this should be controversial speaks volumes about the deterioration of education, especially, science education. Of course on-line activities affect your brain—how could it not do so?—the question is how, in what ways and what are the potential implications.

Greenfield thinks that the ubiquity and attention-sucking of computer technologies are a new environment for the human brain, and expects that we will adapt rapidly to it. Human brains adapt, that’s one thing we are really good at. The adaptations may or may not be intended or expected, and may have negative implications for other aspects of life, but they are happening.

The point is, Greenfield believes that digital life, especially the confluence of a number of recent technologies, present an unprecedented and powerful environment to which our brains are adapting. These changes are profound and have dramatic implications. She uses the term “mind change” as a conscious analogy to the term “climate change”: a large, complex, world-wide change with long-term implications.

The implications are profound. Despite a century of dystopian fantasy, this is not turning to humans into mindless robots. On the contrary, they are being ‘entertained to death’, acting out for an audience, and encouraged to living the life of perpetual childhood: This is not inhuman, this is far too human!

Greenfield isn’t worried about any single technology as much as the simultaneous spread of a number of new experience, enabled by ubiquitous digital tech. These include social media, gaming, searching, and surfing. All of these present evolutionarily new perceptual and behavioral environments, which many people inhabit for quite significant portions of their life.

If you accept that the human brain is superbly able to adapt to new environments, then we must expect that our brains will adapt to these digital environments. The question is, what kind of adaptations are happening, and what implications might they have.

Greenfield lays out recent research on the psychological and social effects of digital experiences, and looks at the evidence of changes in our brains. While there is much we don’t understand, there is certainly evidence that something is going on, and reason to wonder if these somethings are problematic.

These are controversial issues, rife with difficult chicken-and-egg problems, limited understanding of brains, and conflicting social, economic, and political interests. Greenfield works hard to be very careful, laying out the evidence we have and acknowledging the limits of what we know. She definitely draws conclusions, but she does not abuse either evidence or logic. She might end up being wrong, but she is not unreasonable.

For example, a summary of the effects of video games:

Consider the following possible cycle of events involving someone who plays action video games. The experience of a fast-paced, vivid, interactive screen experience is arousing, hence dopamine is released. The dopamine inhibits the prefrontal cortex, thereby putting the brain into a mindset where the here and now trumps consideration of future consequences, making the fast-paced sensations of the screen even more appealing in comparison with the slow, unexciting real world. As the game continues, more dopamine is released, desensitizing its receptors. Now more dopamine is needed to create the same level of arousal as initially experienced, so the behavior that produced the dopamine surge is perpetuated to greater or lesser extent. In some 10 percent or so or individuals this cycle will be extreme enough to be regarded as addictive or obsessive behavior.” p. 199

Of particular interest to me, Chapter 19 considers Augmented Reality, specifically in the form of Google Glass. She has some serious criticisms of what she perceives to be the GG experience, “constantly ongoing literal world will permanently trap users in an endless hyperconnected present” (p. 254). I think she is overstating the experience of GG per se, but you can see where she is coming from, as these technologies enable “the current obsessions with monitoring the lives of others and broadcasting every moment of your own existence” to be “liberated completely from keyboard and touch screen” (p. 255)

This, she worries, is a troubling loss “to us as the independent individual entities we’ve been until now” (p. 255).  Privacy, she says, is the other side of the coin of personal identity. And she worries that “we always have an inner narrative, an ongoing thought process that is ours alone”, and “if you’re now trapped in the present, constantly catering to the demands of the outside world that inner narrative might be harder to sustain” (p 256)

This is certainly an interesting take on “privacy”, which takes it out of the adolescent power games about who controls personal information. Government spying might not be the worst thing to fear.

The three age-old distinctions that formed the basic constructs of our lives—private inner self versus external others, fact versus fantasy, and child versus parent versus grandparent—may for the first time start to erode.” p. 259

She sums up with a “worst case” description in which,

social networking sites could worsen communications skills and reduce interpersonal empathy; personal identities might be constructed externally and refined to perfection with the approbation of an audience as a priority; an approach more suggestive of performance art than of robust personal growth; obsessive gaming could lead to greater recklessness, a shorter attention span, and an increasingly aggressive disposition; heavy reliance on search engines and a preference for surfing rather than researching could result in agile mental processing at the expense of deep knowledge and understanding.” (p. 265)

We can see why she is worried!

This is an important book for many reasons. As I said, Greenfield may turn out to be wrong, but it won’t be because she is careless of the facts or unreasonably alarmist. For example, here analysis of Google Glass is off target, both because GG itself is pretty much a dead end, and because she focuses on details of the specific device which will not be universal. However, AR in some form will definitely be happening, and at least some of her concerns will certainly apply.

Indeed, she did not have space to consider the implications of other digital technologies, for example, the hidden algorithms behind search machines (which skew the “objective” results in various obvious and obscure ways), and the pervasive effects of online “dating” services, not to mention the rise of distracted driving and the “Uber economy”.

My biggest dissatisfaction with the book is that she has little in the way of a positive program to move forward. Assuming that abstinence will not be a widespread practice, what should be done?

This, indeed, is one of my own central concerns.

How can we use these technologies not only without harm, but to make human life better?

Along those lines, we can be inspired by hybrids such as ‘social streets’ and ‘home coworking’, which use digital technology to build and sustain satisfying human relations.

I also hope to see Augmented Reality used to create more social spaces, where the magic only happens when we are there, together, at the same time, in person.

Forget the hand wringing, we have work to do.


 

  1. Greenfield, Susan, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, New York, Random House, 2015.

 

Sunday Book Reviews