Science and technology

Making the most of the digital world: Changing an end to a means


In 1964 the writer Isaac Asimov predicted life 50 years on: “Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom....and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine”. 


In order to make the most of a culture geared to “serving a machine”, we should harness insights from neuroscience to devise commercial and educational strategies where true individuality, and individual insight, can flourish: this goal of creativity shouldn’t be an outcome reserved for an elite, but a realistic expectation for all citizens in the 21st century. 


Humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet because of the superlative ability of our brains, compared with those of any other animal, to adapt to the environment. Our brains become highly individualised post-natally by the development of unique configurations of connections between the brain cells that characterise the growth of the human brain after birth, personalising it into a “mind” that is in constant dialogue with the environment.


Neuroscience can give valuable insights by offering a perspective at the level of the physical brain of how we might feel and think in unprecedented ways. If we are indeed anticipating more decades of long and healthy life than ever before, we need to understand, for example, the alleged efficacy of mindfulness at the level of the physical brain, the possible threats posed by the digital world to emotions and well-being, such as short attention span, poor interpersonal skills and a fragile sense of identity, and then devise the best ways for optimising fulfilment of each individual’s potential.


We live in a world in which people seek out a global social networking profile, a world of instant views and thoughts read out in a virtual stream of consciousness. It’s a two-dimensional world of only sight and sound, yet offering instant information, connected identity, diminished privacy and here-and-now experiences so vivid they out-compete the real world of three dimensions and five senses. This new culture and way of life is unprecedented and as such, is inevitably having an unprecedented effect on each individual’s human brain.


Nowadays, digital technologies impact every sector of our professional and private lives, encompassing goods and services, insurance and risk management, the media, leadership, education and ultimately most domestic and international policy planning. However, social networking sites could be transforming the way we see our own identity and relations with others. Video games may be having an effect on attention, aggression and even addictive behaviour patterns. Search engines could be impacting on how we learn and differentiate information from knowledge.


How will our culture and lifestyle adapt to a premium on the arguable features of a screen-based mentality, such as a craving for sensation, short attention span and diminished frames of reference?


My suggestion is that individual adaption will take the form of a more child-like scenario of literal and simplified events/characters/images where premium is based on direct and immediate experience, for example, the world of Pokemon Go. Then, there’s a complementary question of how culture and a new type of environment could develop a stronger sense of individuality, reflective thought and the ability to make connections, to join up the dots in new ways that today’s more digitally immersed minds might  find problematic.


The digital world is arguably, for many, an end in itself, presenting a parallel lifestyle that overrides that of the real world, and on which many will choose to spend their money and their time. But how might this powerful digital environment be turned into a means to a much more fulfilling end? In order to make the most of a culture currently geared to “serving a machine”, surely the answer is to foster creativity, novel insights for everyone in both the humanities and the sciences. This vision at the moment might seem an unrealistic dream, and indeed it could take a generation to unfold, but in order to start to realise such a world, we need to start devising an environment and educational strategies for converting the fragments of isolated pieces of information from the screen into an interconnected system of knowledge. Only by joining up the dots into cohesive conceptual frameworks will original thought and individual insight be able to emerge and flourish. 


Visit Baroness Greenfield’s website at

OECD Forum 2017 issues

OECD work on the digital economy

OECD work on innovation

OECD work on science and technology


Susan Greenfield
CEO and Founder, Neuro-Bio Ltd and Member of the British House of Lords

© OECD Yearbook


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