Catching up on dumbing down

Everyone else on the planet has probably read it already, but I’ve finished my first read of Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You. I like Johnson’s stuff (I fancy this this comment about an update of Interface Culture both a compliment and dead on). I read the endnotes before reading the book so I’d have an idea what other work he connected with (yeah, I’m an academic). I’m down with most of what SBJ has to say, which I’d summarize as this: the assumption that video games, television, and other media are the prime movers in an intellectual (and moral) race to the bottom fails to acknowledge the complexity of contemporary popular media as compared to their brethren from the 1970s or 1950s. Johnson argues that, for example, the multi-threaded narrative structure of Lost and the intertextuality of The Simpsons are far more intellectually demanding than All in the Family or Gilligan’s Island (to borrow from Shirky’s latest). Same for video games; in particular, the chart (227-9) which compares the difference in Zelda gameplay from 1986 to 2006 is astonishing, an excellent visualization of the radical increase in difficulty there: more controls, limited point of view, increased dimensionality, increased dynamism. (Add to that far superior AI and the possibility of network play against human opponents.) For Johnson, even reality shows involve more interactivity, as we rehearse decisions made by participants and ask, “Would I have done that?” or build decision trees for episodes to follow. SBJ calls this trend the “Sleeper Curve.”

I wish the book had gotten a little deeper into the particulars of the “smart” alternatives to the “dumbing” which Johnson takes on. I wanted to hear more about narrative complexity and specifics about the problem-solving encouraged by gameplay. In particular, I’m also interested in the research work implied in the more sophisticated responses to media. There’s obvious evidence for Johnson’s claim that aficionados of Lost and other contemporary media are using the web to learn more about their favorite shows; I’d wanted to hear a bit more. Same with the question of anti-intellectualism which Alex brought up recently; though I haven’t read Jacoby’s book, I agree with Alex’s diagnosis of much charges of anti-intellectualism (or heck any perceived social ill) as a mix of bad logic and navel-gazing: “I do X, and I am smart. You aren’t interested in X, so you must a moron.” But not appearing “too smart” remains desirable, and disengagement (or at least its appearance) still appeals for many reasons. Still, I see it as playing dumb, rather than being dumb.

Turns out my timing wasn’t too bad; Mark Bauerlein has turned his attention from CCCC programs to many of the questions Johnson takes on. Has anyone read The Dumbest Generation? Frankly, I’m not excited about buying it, and it’s too new for ILL. I did finally get Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which I started last year but didn’t finish. That will have to do until I decide if Bauerlein gets any of my money.

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3 Responses to Catching up on dumbing down

  1. Brendan says:

    Your summary of Alex’s post on anti-intellectualism brought to mind one of my favorite George Carlin quips:

    When you’re driving, everyone going slower than you is a moron. Everyone going faster is an idiot.

  2. marc says:

    Hey- that’s my favorite Carlin quote, too! Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture gives good insight into how the public is connecting online to extend their experiences with television. Good read.

  3. cbd says:

    Thanks, Marc–I’ll definitely pick that up.

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