Here come the supertaskers

New technologies and social media are training up the next generation of superbrains, but are young

Young people today are dangerously self-obsessed, over-cosseted and computer-addled - or so the media would have us believe. Recent science stories seem to confirm popular concerns about the feckless brains of Generation Whatever (to use the latest label). But we are not getting the whole story.

On 29 May, British newspapers rushed to report on a study by Sara Konrath, a University of Michigan researcher, showing that current college students are lacking in empathy compared to their predecessors. The study concludes that "college kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy". The biggest fall came after the year 2000 - the advent of mass connectivity - according to the survey of 14,000 personality tests over the past three decades. Konrath says that modern students are far less likely to agree with lines such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me".

Presenting their findings on 27 May, Konrath and her colleague Edward O'Brien told the US Association for Psychological Science that the rise of social media seemed to be a factor: "The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems - a behaviour that could carry over offline." Thus, "many people", Konrath said, "see the current group of college students as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and indivi­dualistic in recent history".

It is a popular impression. Not only is Generation Whatever accused of unprecedented selfishness, but we are told that it is getting increasingly stupid. Again, technology is blamed. In June, for example, a Duke University study found that having home computers and broadband lowers students' scores in reading and maths - particularly if they don't have the sort of middle-class parents who nag them to lay off the messaging and gaming.

Techy teens

But are these concerns new? "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words . . . and impatient of restraint." That was the poet Hesiod in the 8th century BC.

The human basics may have changed very little - but that does not make headlines. In March, the British media ignored a University of Western Ontario study of 477,380 high-school seniors in 1976 and 2006, which found that Generation Whatever looks very similar to youth from the mid-1970s. The main difference, said the study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that the new generation of young people has higher expectations of its education and is less trustful of government. So perhaps it cares more.

Jeroen Boschma, creative director of the advertising firm Keesie, based in Rotterdam, believes as much. He told the Spanish newspaper El País the story of how he interviewed a 17-year-old for a job and asked him a tough technical question to see how he would react. The candidate did not know the answer, but requested a minute to find out, consulted an online forum and got more than 100 informed responses from across the world.

In 2006, Boschma published the book Generation Einstein: Smarter, Faster and More Socially Aware, to loud media buzz. He believes that rapid-paced technology has imbued these so-called "digital natives" with new qualities: they challenge authority and are highly pragmatic in dealing with information. "This sets them apart from any other generation and has consequences that are by no means trivial."

Certainly, young people are politically engaged on a scale unseen since the 1960s, thanks to their ability to clamber on to the internet's global soapbox. For example, when Farouk Olu Aregbe, a recent graduate in the US, set up the One Million Strong for Obama Facebook group, it rapidly gained 820,000 members. And in Britain, pressure from a 5,000-strong Facebook group forced HSBC to stop charging interest on graduates' overdrafts.

The laptop revolutionaries can also be altruistic. Twitter and Facebook were still primarily driven by college students when these networks overwhelmed the Red Cross with millions of texted $10 gifts to Haitian earthquake relief. Digital networking, far from merely fostering passivity, has created a generation that can engage vigorously and fast. Empathy has not disappeared - it is simply taking different forms.

And it's not just empathy that is changing. The idea that the human population is developing a different kind of intelligence is another common idea. Studies by James Flynn, a professor of political studies at Otago University, New Zealand, who specialises in measuring intelligence, show a consistent rise in global IQ performance of roughly 3 per cent per decade, in some cases going back to the early 20th century. This implies that, over the past 100 years, the IQs of people (predominantly in the west) have risen by about 30 points, an observation known as the "Flynn effect".

Flynn believes that our brains have changed in recent decades because TV, computers and social networking challenge the brain in new ways and for far longer periods of time. Those challenges are developing quickly. The plotlines for The Wire are infinitely more complex than those of, say, The Good Life in the 1970s. Games such as Civilization IV re-create human economic and technological history, challenging teens to work out whether they should develop an agrarian capitalist society or a monarchy.

But Flynn argues that his "effect" does not show a genetic increase in intelligence per se. It is the product of a bias in IQ tests towards abstract-reasoning intelligence. Our brains are becoming more creative, but this is perhaps at the cost of older, everyday skills.

This theory is echoed by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. He believes the generation that has grown up using computers is having a harder time reading social cues. "Even though [they] are very good with the tech skills, they are weak with the face-to-face human contact skills," he told the New York Times in April.

Such shifts in consciousness are not without peril. Two recently published studies - by the University of California and the University of Southern California - indicate that our constant diet of digital news is beginning to move faster than our ability to make moral judgements. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering and war are consumed but may not make us indignant, compassionate or inspired.

Yet there is evidence, too, that the human brain is advancing its ability to sift informa-tion quickly. We appear to be evolving rapidly under pressure from unprecedented demands, using evolutionary mechanisms we are just beginning to understand. One is called epigenetics - a frontier science that is revealing how the changes we experience in our brains during our lives do not simply go to the grave with us, but can be passed on to our offspring.

Scientists are also discovering that the brain retains high levels of plasticity throughout our lives, particularly if we keep challenging it with new learning.

Speed-freaks

Tomorrow's people may already be buzzing away among us. They will include the "supertaskers". For most of us, multitasking is tough. Trials show that it tends to result in two things done poorly rather than one done well. But one in 40 people appears immune to this problem. These lucky speed-freaks can, for example, drive and talk on a mobile phone at the same time without loss of concentration on either task, according to tests on 200 people by the Utah University psychologist Jason Watson.

Supertaskers constitute only 2.5 per cent of the population, Watson believes. But even that level is surprisingly high. "According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," he says in a paper soon to be published by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Further research into supertaskers may reveal how the multitasking regions of their brains are different, due to some inherited variation. Watson predicts that employers in high-performance professions will want to screen for genetic markers of supertasking ability. Generation Whatever's multi-mediated brains may be the key to our ever-faster future.

But even in a hyper-accelerated culture, someone is going to have to pay close attention to socially indispensable matters such as law, politics, academia and medicine - disciplines that demand conscientiousness and a gimlet eye for mono-tasking detail. Old-brainers, the over-thirties, aren't out of business yet. So we should not be so snippy about welcoming the children of the network-minded generation, even if we don't understand their ways.

John Naish is the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask