Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Sleeper Curve

Steven Johnson has certainly created a big kerfuffle with his recent NY Times Magazine article, Watching TV Makes You Smarter, which began by outlining how shows like 24 feature a greater number of distinct story arcs, supposedly making them more like Middlemarch than standard 60s TV fare like Bonanza.

The conclusion Johnson reaches is that the stuff the media is chucking at us is actually becoming more cognitively demanding, not less. So-called debased mass diversion, what Johnson calls the Sleeper Curve, turns out to be unexpectedly "nutritional", he insists. (This argument will shortly assume book form as Everything Is Bad for You. How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.)

However, the way that this story has been picked up across the mass media, does perhaps suggest that the harbingers of cultural doom need not throw in the towel just yet.

In the same week that Johnson published his article another piece of research revealed that our IQs decline in proportion to the ammount of incoming information we have to deal with. So the fact that "to make sense of an episode of 24 you have to integrate far more information" may not necessarily mean that we get smarter when we watch this kind of convoluted drama.

A labyrinth is indeed "a cognitive workout" but is it a good thing if all our pathways in the cultural web assume the form of a maze?

I'm currently 'reading' the 1995 graphical novel version of Paul Auster's City of Glass and have no doubt that Johnson would celebrate the up-its-own-arse nature of this narrative.

The fashion for smugly self-referential literary tangles is a consequence of what is more widely known as Postmodernism. Writers of this school get to ask all sorts of questions about the nature of this and that without actually having to answer any of them. The resulting three dimensional snafu of symbols will consistently give the reader the impression of having discovered significant hidden connections in the outside world, but in fact all that has happened is that some dotted lines have been drawn between surface signs in the text. It's ultimately artificial and, I would argue, perhaps makes it harder for the reader to recognise 'real' meaning when they see it.

Ernst Cassirer put it this way: "Instead of dealing with things themselves man is in a sense conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of an artifical medium."

I'm also reminded of the words of celebrity Luddite Neil Postman: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be noone who wanted to read one. Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture, Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. In Brave New World the problem was not that people were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and they had stopped thinking."

Postman's understanding of the term "dumb" would undoubtedly differ from Johnson's. He used to say that 60 Minutes posed a bigger threat to public discourse than the A Team! What bothers him is "Man's almost infinite appetite for distractions" which he feels has led to a "descent into a vast triviality".

For me the interesting thing is how a society that has consistently allowed its members to become more educated and better off has also found a way to warp these material and cognitive gains away from the kinds of application that Postman hankers after.

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