Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 19/4/2005It's not enough that da kidz are out there sniffing hoodies and happy-slapping alcopops, or whatever it is they get up to these days. No — it's what happens when they get to do the stuff that adults provide that things go really badly wrong.

Wednesday 19/4/2005

It's not enough that da kidz are out there sniffing hoodies and happy-slapping alcopops, or whatever it is they get up to these days. No — it's what happens when they get to do the stuff that adults provide that things go really badly wrong. Or so thinks Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, who told the House of Lords this week that scandalous things were afoot with Web browsers. A "growing scandal developing under our very noses as technologies such as cognition-enhancing drugs, mind-changing software and electronic devices that interact with brain and mind are being applied to our children with insufficient thought and regulation", she speechified.

Couldn't agree more. It's scandalous that when I was at school, we had to brew our own drugs and write our own software, and the electronic devices were limited to transistor radios and — if you were lucky — a Nintendo Game+Watch. Were there similar debates in the nobility when literacy became widespread, I wonder? "It's not natural to make them read, you know. It affects their brains."

The Baroness has a point, though, and it's not just children who fall foul of the unbearable lightness of being online. For anyone with a predisposition towards wandering attention, the Internet is a ghastly place. No matter how deeply embedded you are in your work, Alt+Tab will transport you more efficiently than the starship Enterprise to anywhere in the galaxy you fancy. And that's it; you've lost context, concentration and focus. Everything in your head (which could well include whatever it is you picked up last time you alt-tabbed) dissipates into nothingness like a breath of cigarette smoke: it's more disruptive than booze, dope or women. Forget the pram in the hallway, the sombre enemy of good art is the wireless router in the cupboard.

What I'd like to see is a little utility that monitors the number of times I move focus away from a document while I'm editing it. Each IM, each email, each slipping away to Firefox should be noted — and ideally, marked in the document by a tag of some sort. And then, perhaps, some sort of automated stick or carrot: each time I do it, my net connection slows down, or if I get to the end of a page without blemish a little door in the PC opens and a cold miniature of tequila is dispensed. Doubtless this could be adapted to the education environment — a small tube of glue, perhaps, or a ringtone.

There is another way, and that's cold turkey. Which is why I've already booked my yearly spell in the IT equivalent of the Priory, my chicken shed on a Swedish farm where the only connectivity comes whistling in on the shortwave frequencies of the World Service and switching windows involves looking up to see the cows on the hillside opposite. Days writing in severe isolation, nights spent watching art movies with pals and contemplating skies free of light pollution.

And no kids. It gets no better than that in this world, and I hope the Baroness would agree.

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