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Everything Bad Is Good for You, by Steven Johnson
Smart is the new dumb
Friday 20 May 2005
It's a great title, and a classic "talker" for the season. Steven Johnson's elegantly written long essay on the cognitive benefits of popular culture - in games, the internet and television - is undoubtely one of the better commuter reads at the moment. At least its brevity allows for debate to begin.
But this is, as Ben Bradlee used to say, a "one-handed" polemic. In short: the effect of interactivity on our minds and societies is too important to be reduced to a Manichean "good" versus "bad". And what makes us "smart" enough will not necessarily make us "wise" enough, or even sufficiently developed, to cope with the disruptions of the new century.
To be fair, Johnson doesn't ascend to these lofty anxieties. To begin with, he's in a local American fight - against those waves of official fear and disdain about the degrading effects of pop life on the citizenry. Computer games are the great scapegoat: the latest entrant to the ring is Hillary Clinton, who has carefully placed the "moral nihilism" of games like Grand Theft Auto as a building-block for her next political leap.
Yet "reality TV" is also taken as an index for the dumbing-down of programme formulas. Johnson resists this claim in particular: his essential point is that quality shows like The Sopranos or West Wing are closer to American Idol and The Apprentice than to earlier formats - say Starsky and Hutch for crime, or Celebrity Squares for game shows.
We have to be "smarter", says Johnson - meaning more mentally agile and abstractly analytical - to cope with these Noughties shows with their overlapping narratives, internal references, and bewildering social networks. Starsky just started each episode pursuing a criminal, and got him at the end; in response to dumb questions, the celebrities just illuminated their squares.
Johnson's thesis about the growing complexity of television since the interactive 1990s is somewhat belied by history. Were recondite, convoluted shows like The Prisoner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Singing Detective simply anomalous, or examples of the usual 90per cent/10 per cent relationship between dreck and quality in pop culture? Television's relationship with theatre and literature, and its traditions of innovation, are well-established. I would guess that an archive search through the last 30 years of British TV would find productions that regularly match Johnson's template for complexity. Is this a cue for a BBC Four season: "Complex TV"?
Yet Johnson is right that mass participation in powerful computer games over 20 years - further enriched by Net culture from the late Nineties - has created a real change in the perceptive powers of a generation. We are all apopheniacs now, apophenia meaning the tendency to seek patterns and connections in every phenomenon or experience.
Navigating a game environment, and then websearching for the cheats that can get you out of a jam, takes this skill as a given. This explains the startling rise in IQ since the Nineties, which Johnson uses as the statistical McGuffin of his argument. It turns out that the most reliable test for the "g" factor that comprises IQ measurements is a comparison of visual patterns.
But I have a huge problem with Johnson's seemingly ingenuous plea to respect the new cognitive skills developed through interactive pop culture. Is he truly unaware that this kind of "smarts" is driving much of the so-called New Military Revolution in the American armed forces? This is historically rooted: computer games were partly originated by training and simulation technologies for US fighter pilots.
All those skills of "prioritising, trial-and-error problem solving, strategic thinking and pattern recognition" that come from playing computer games are directly transferable to 21st-century techno-warfare, where "full spectrum dominance" (Hey! Sounds like a great game!) rests on a combination of complete info-surveillance and overwhelming destructive power.
It must be stressed that this is more than conjecture. In a recent conference on "Serious Games" in Washington, more than half of the participants were military personnel, or were consulting to the military. They included erstwhile hip game-gurus like JC Herz, now helping the Pentagon on "network warfare".
Johnson seems to be unwilling - or perhaps unable - to notice this crossover between the new smarts and American imperial power. But it makes some sense of his repeated insistence that we should try to suspend the "moral, ethical and ideological" considerations of pop culture so that we can consider how it is developing a new kind of literacy.
Indeed, it well might be "a bore", while glorying in the "multi-threaded narratives" of The Sopranos or 24, to note that they articulate a pre-modern cult of violence: vigilantism, torture, the furies and exclusions of kinship. But wouldn't it be more interesting to make a connection between form and content, rather than just exult in the innovations of the first and leave the second to the grim-faced moralists? All play, and no ethics, makes for some lopsided theorising about popular culture.
There's a lovely moment in the recent teen-girls movie Freaky Friday, in which orderly professional mother Jamie Lee Curtis is dropping off her rebellious, grungy daughter Lindsay Mohan. "Make great choices today, honey!" calls Curtis: Mohan's just-die-Mom dumb stare is classic. But the cognitive scandal implied by Mohan's response - what, she doesn't want to make great choices? - highlights what's chilling about Johnson's almost undimmed enthusasism for the abstract, combinatorial smarts of the digital era.
Mohan's adolescent eye-roll is perfectly understandable. It's not that easy to "make great choices", particularly when the technology exists to make you the "god of a game", wherein your choices can be as momentous, or terminal, as anything experienced in the human record.
We can cut computer games some historical slack here: was the penny-dreadful content that drove early print literacy any less developed than the porno-adventure of Lara Croft? But we don't need to grant the games sector any aesthetic favours. Yes, the joy of exploring a fully realised virtual world in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is cognitively sumptuous: the flickers on the cave wall have become ever more distinct, controllable. Yet there must arrive a time when the arts and humanities, bearing all their centuries of imagining subtle and challenging worlds, come to the aid of this new literacy.
Advanced perception is not advanced understanding. Our new tools are brilliant, but they outstrip our capacity to use them well. We need a catch-up process between creative communities, not a polemical opposition in a false and unhelpful culture war. I'm tempted to rewrite Johnson's book title: "Everything of Value Is Necessary For the Future". Inelegant, not punchy enough, I know. But smarts just aren't enough.
Pat Kane is author of 'The Play Ethic' (Macmillan)
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