Daytime TV: Realm of the senses

The web is a force for good - or not, learns Gary Day. Are young people distracted or thinking differently?

March 11, 2010

South Korea is the most wired country on the planet. What better place, then, to examine the effects of the virtual revolution? And so Dr Aleks Krotoski went to investigate (The Virtual Revolution, BBC Two, Wednesday 3 March, 11.50pm). Her profile was sharp against Seoul, a city glowing blue in the night. Apparently, 62 per cent of three- to five-year-olds use the internet and young people spend 18 hours a day on line. Some 210,000 of them are addicted. If they don't plug in they become anxious, unstable and row with their parents. But that sounds like normal teenage behaviour, so perhaps there's nothing too much to worry about there.

In fact when you consider that South Korea regularly tops the world's education league tables, you might conclude that tapping away at a keyboard all day is good for the brain. But you would be wrong. Dr Aleks did not ask if other factors such as respect for elders, state-run schools and teacher-led learning might not be as, if not more, important in the country's success as simply being web-savvy. Nevertheless, she did set the parameters of the debate with admirable clarity. The internet - is it good or bad? Mind you, what issue isn't framed in roughly those terms? Is it because as bipeds we formulate all our questions in a binary way? Surely not, but the thought has a certain symmetry.

We do have two sides to our brains though. Maybe that explains it. Baroness Susan Greenfield would know. As well groomed as ever, she stood in a gallery of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and went eye to eye with Aleks. Computers appeal to our senses, not to our intellect. Aleks nodded vigorously. Actions have no consequence in the virtual world. Aleks' head nearly fell off. The Baroness spoke with such conviction you almost believed her. Aleks wanted to prove that she, too, had opinions. She referred to the research of one Vannevar Bush. His 1945 essay, "As We May Think", argued that the development of computers would lead us to think more associatively and less linearly.

His predictions, she ventured, would seem to be coming true. The young are endlessly distracted; their attention span diminishes by the day. Even the brightest students groan when told to read a book. We think the printed word is central to education whereas they think it's peripheral, said David Runciman of the University of Cambridge. He is heir to his family's viscountcy. It will take a while for broadband to change the make-up of the British Establishment, if ever.

At the moment it is merely reconfiguring our notions of personality, friendship and community by first emptying them of all substance. Oh, I don't know, said Professor Robin Dunbar as a monkey picked parasites from its chum away to his left. His study of primate behaviour had revealed that there is an upper limit to human groups if they are to function effectively. It's 150. A figure, said the professor, that can be found in all institutions and organisations. And yes, there's a variant of it at work in the friends list of Facebook.

Stephen Fry, whose shirt looked like a very busy ocean, was one of many who wondered what all the fuss was about. It was just a lot of old fogeys moaning, said this hip fiftysomething guy who is down with the kids. A more thoughtful contribution came from Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook. Apparently the site started life as a means of rating the women at Harvard, but that's another story. The impossibly young and brilliant Mr Hughes denied that social-networking sites promoted trivia and narcissism; on the contrary, he argued, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were crucial to Barack Obama's election as president. But a clip showing a girl singing "I've got a crush on Obama" doesn't show any understanding of the politics, just a desire to get on a fashionable bandwagon. We might have learned more but Aleks had to rush off to update her blog and video diary.

The End of the Line (Channel 4, Saturday 6 March, 7.15pm) was a documentary that had more facts and figures than there are going to be fish in the ocean if we carry on catching them at the rate we are. The number of fishing lines in use can circle the globe 550 times. Delicate ecosystems are being wantonly destroyed. Cod is dead. Well, at least in Newfoundland, where it was hunted to extinction. Fishermen there opposed quotas, but still the lesson hasn't been learned. It was like watching a Quentin Tarantino version of Macbeth. Hooks slammed into bluefin tuna that were yanked on deck, blood pouring from their gills. And you know the worst part? The laughter. Sickening but necessary viewing if we are to put a stop to the slaughter.

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