John Walsh: Tales of the City

Grand Theft Auto, it seems, will turn our kids into a race of geniuses. Whatever...
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The Independent Online

Most parents will know that inner squeak of alarm that sounds when you stick your head round the door and find your son deep in a video game on which a hyperkinetic roughneck in jeans and a T-shirt is running through the streets of some bad-ass inner-city.

Most parents will know that inner squeak of alarm that sounds when you stick your head round the door and find your son deep in a video game on which a hyperkinetic roughneck in jeans and a T-shirt is running through the streets of some bad-ass inner-city.

"I hope this is a instructional game," you say, "carrying the message that we must all strive for mutual understanding in these troubled times."

"Yeah," the child replies. "That's exactly it."

"Why is that man running through the streets? Where's he going? What's that in his hand?"

"He's training to be in the South Central LA Relay Team, Dad, and is holding a baton."

"But my God, he's just shot a Mexican and started a Gang War. Look, it says so, on screen. And now he's shot two policemen, stolen their car and is driving erratically down San Yerbas Boulevard ..."

"Yeah, Dad, I know."

"But kid," you say, "you shouldn't be watching this awful stuff. It is bad, wrong and morally null."

"I'm not watching it, Dad. I'm doing it."

Unable to parry this casuistry, you turn away and find several daughters ignoring their homework slumped before The OC. You could watch this programme for weeks and not find the plot advancing by a micron. Seth will agonise about Summer, Ryan will sulk over Marissa, and Seth's dad Sandy's hair will become mysteriously ever blacker. You look at your daughters vegetating their childhood away, and despair. Why in God's name can they not be reading Thomas Mann?

Well, I was wrong. According to a new book by the science journalist Stephen Johnson, popular culture has a much more synapse-twanging effect on your brain than any amount of old-fashioned reading and thinking. In Everything Bad Is Good For You (Penguin), he argues that the stuff we regard as deleterious to our children's sanity (American sitcoms, video games, TV dramas) is, in fact, turning them into a new race of hair-trigger geniuses.

Mr Johnson is convinced that The Sopranos, Grand Theft Auto and their like are infinitely more subtle and nuanced than any shows or games that preceded them; he says they encourage "cognitive complexity", and that, far from being mindless entertainment for dumb-asses with distended thumbs and solitary habits, the new technology "engages the brain's decision-making apparatus" like nothing ever has before, and "exercises our minds in powerful new ways".

Mr Johnson's enthusiasm is appealing, but he lost me somewhere around the television stuff. Explaining that there are "degrees of passivity" he explains that far more is demanded of the TV-watching sofa-slug than it used to be. On shows such as ER and 24 and The West Wing, the watching audience is kept on its toes by being fed huge amounts of information in every episode (medication jargon you're not supposed to understand, crucial plot points, allusions to stuff that happened in the past or will happen in the future), and the rapid-fire selection and processing of data makes for a kind of intellectual gymnastics that will leave us cleverer and smarter than before.

I wish I could believe him. I wish that sitting through the sturm und drang of ER's dialogue was doing my cerebral cortex the world of good. I wish I could believe that an hour of Desperate Housewives is comparable to an hour wrestling with Godel's Theorem. I wish the gangsters racing through the streets in my son's video game were doing something more edifying than teaching him to be a really crap driver. But I don't. I still think that intellectual growth comes with the recognition of how ideas, thoughts and metaphors all fit together. Not with how fast the brain hears the word "Dubenko" and asks the Rolodex of memory, "Who the hell is Dr Dubenko?"

Pot luck

Have you ever read a newspaper story and wondered how it might sound from a different perspective? The Prince of Wales has been visiting Romania (and making friends with the locals), as reported in the Editie Speciala. Staying, with his entourage, at a monastery in the town of Horezu, he went for a stroll, pushed open the door of a pottery workshop and asked if he could lend a hand.

The smiling artisans handed him a plate they'd just made and explained the design they'd like to see on the china. "I plan to keep this plate," said Mihaela Plesoi, whose workshop it was. "It's made with Romanian traditional motifs. It is not every day that I see a prince working in my workshop. He was quite a sociable person and laughed all the time he was working. He seemed to be enjoying what he was doing."

A charming encounter. But then you discover the prince was on a secret, unofficial visit, that he was technically incognito, and nobody was expecting him or knew much about him. So the story could easily have read POTWOMAN ALARMED BY LAUGHING WATERCOLOURIST: Local potter Mrs Mihaela Plesoi was comforted by friends in Horezu today, after her workhouse was invaded by a man claiming to be "the Prince of Britain".

"I think that's what he said," reported Mrs Plesoi. "He poked his head round the door just before lunch, said hello in a comical accent and asked if he could help. Always there are people coming here for work experience. We give them plate to keep 'em quiet, and say, 'Paint dignified suffering of Romanian peasant, OK?'

"But instead, this man with the bald patch, he draw agreeable watercolour of boat on Scotch pond. I tell him, 'This no bladdy good. Never sell. Do it again. You think plates grows on trees, you fack?' But he just smile and laugh some more and fiddle with sleeve-ends and talk to other men. I thought he leaving without pay for plate, but one of men give me five million lei and say, 'This man he Prince Chaz, you know? Marry Di-then-Camilla, very famous. You must tell reporters he nice, good egg, look here at lovely plate he paint. Mum is word, okay?' "