Contrasting stories about the effect of information on our cognitive powers.
In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Magazine > Watching TV Makes You Smarter” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html?”>Watching TV Makes You Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that the complexities of TV shows has greatly increased, using the example of the Jan. 24, episode of the Fox hit “24”:
For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that “24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of “24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like “24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.
I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.
(Note: he calls it the Sleeper effect as a rif on the scene from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper where Allen, as a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, walks up to find that everything he was told was bad for him [i.e. cream pies] are now good for you and vis-versus)
He goes on to explain how this works:
With “Dallas,” the modern viewer doesn’t have to think to make sense of what’s going on, and not having to think is boring. Many recent hit shows — “24,” “Survivor,” “The Sopranos,” “Alias,” “Lost,” “The Simpsons,” “E.R.” — take the opposite approach, layering each scene with a thick network of affiliations. You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you’re exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads.
Of course, the entertainment industry isn’t increasing the cognitive complexity of its products for charitable reasons. The Sleeper Curve exists because there’s money to be made by making culture smarter. The economics of television syndication and DVD sales mean that there’s a tremendous financial pressure to make programs that can be watched multiple times, revealing new nuances and shadings on the third viewing. Meanwhile, the Web has created a forum for annotation and commentary that allows more complicated shows to prosper, thanks to the fan sites where each episode of shows like “Lost” or “Alias” is dissected with an intensity usually reserved for Talmud scholars. Finally, interactive games have trained a new generation of media consumers to probe complex environments and to think on their feet, and that gamer audience has now come to expect the same challenges from their television shows.
In contrast, there is this from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Evening Wrap:
Feeling Stupid? Blame Your Computer
Talk about unintended consequences: the emails, text messages and instant messages that supposedly make people better-connected can also make them more stupid, according to a new study. In a project sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, Glenn Wilson , a professor at King’s College London, tested the impact on workers of a steady bombardment of electronic messages and found that workers temporarily lost 10 points of IQ as a result of trying to handle all the incoming information — more than double the four-point effect of smoking marijuana and roughly matching the effect of missing a full night’s sleep.
I’m not sure I competely buy either of these arguments. Granted I often feel stupid after a long day at the computer, I’m not sure I feel smarter after watching a TV show. Then again, I don’t watch a lot of TV and am probably watching all the wrong (i.e. dumb) shows.
These findings surely give us something to think about.