everything bad continued -- the author strikes back 10.26.2005, 10:39 AM
posted by steven johnson
Folks, enjoying the discussion here. I had a couple of responses to several points that have been raised.
1. The title. I think some of you are taking it a little too seriously -- it's meant to be funny, not a strict statement of my thesis. Calling it hyperbolic or misleading is like criticizing Neil Postman for calling his book "Amusing Ourselves To Death" when no one actually *died* from watching too much television in the early eighties.
2. IQ. As I say in the book, we don't really know if the increased complexity of the culture is partially behind the Flynn Effect, though I suspect it is (and Flynn, for what it's worth, suspects it is as well.) But I'm not just interested in IQ as a measure of the increased intelligence of the gaming/net generation. I focused on that because it was the one area where there was actually some good data, in the sense that we definitely know that IQ scores are rising. But I suspect that there are many other -- potentially more important -- ways in which we're getting smarter as well, most of which we don't test for. Probably the most important is what we sometimes call system thinking: analyzing a complex system with multiple interacting variables changing over time. IQ scores don't track this skill at all, but it's precisely the sort of thing you get extremely good at if you play a lot of SimCity-like games. It is not a trivial form of intelligence at all -- it's precisely the *lack* of skill at this kind of thinking that makes it hard for people to intuitively understand things like ecosystems or complex social problems.
3. The focus of the book itself. People seem to have a hard time accepting the fact that I really do think the content/values discussion about pop culture has its merits. I just chose to write a book that would focus on another angle, since it was an angle that was chronically ignored in the discussion of pop culture (or chronically misunderstood.) Everything Bad is not a unified field theory of pop culture; it's an attempt to look at one specific facet of the culture from a fresh perspective. If Bob (and others) end up responding by saying that the culture is both making us smarter on a cognitive level, but less wise on a social/historical level (because of the materialism, etc) that's a perfectly reasonable position to take, one that doesn't contradict anything I'm saying in the book. I happen to think that -- despite that limited perspective -- the Sleeper Curve hypothesis was worthy of a book because 1) increased cognitive complexity is hardly a trivial development, and 2) everyone seemed to think that the exact opposite was happening, that the culture was dumbing us all down. In a way, I wrote the book to encourage people to spend their time worrying about real problems -- instead of holding congressional hearings to decide if videogames were damaging the youth of American, maybe they could focus on, you know, poverty or global warming or untangling the Iraq mess.
As far as the materialistic values question goes, I think it's worth pointing out that the most significant challenge to the capitalist/private property model to come along in generations has emerged precisely out of the gaming/geek community: open source software, gift economy sharing, wikipedia, peer-to-peer file sharing, etc. If you're looking for evidence of people using their minds to imagine alternatives to the dominant economic structures of their time, you'll find far more experiments in this direction coming out of today's pop culture than you would have in the pop culture of the late seventies or eighties. Thanks to their immersion this networked culture, the "kids today" are much more likely to embrace collective projects that operate outside the traditional channels of commercial ownership. They're also much more likely to think of themselves as producers of media, sharing things for the love of it, than the passive TV generation that Postman chronicled. There's still plenty of mindless materialism out there, of course, but I think the trend is a positive one.
virginia kuhn on October 26, 2005 10:21 PM:
Thanks for jumping in here. As I have said earlier in this space, I do have little patience for the type of invective about the desperate state of "youth today" but can you honestly deny that standardized tests are culturally biased? How can group IQ be gauged?
Even leaving that aside and engaging with your book (and this post) on a specific level can we really say with any certainty that gaming culture is a threat to capitalist society?
Not perhaps if we judge from an example you make early on with regard to your nephew, for instance. You note that he would immediately shut down if someone tried to teach him about urban planning but "somehow an hour of playing SimCity taught him that high tax rates in industrial areas can stifle development" (32). Do we really want to teach little white boys that corporate welfare is the way to strengthen an economy? I mean where is the accompanying Alan Trachtenberg game? Hearing a kid utter "I think we need to lower industrial tax rates" frankly gives me the creeps. At least let's counter SimCity with The Corporation; being a DVD, maybe the kids will watch. Isn't critical engagement with programming choices a requirement for intelligence?
Steven Johnson on October 27, 2005 10:15 AM:
can you honestly deny that standardized tests are culturally biased? How can group IQ be gauged?
See my other post (and my comments in the book.) The whole point of the Flynn Effect is that IQ *is* influenced by culture. If you want to make an argument against the Bell Curve, for instance, pointing to the Flynn Effect is a great place to start. And yes, I do believe that IQ tests are biased against certain demographic groups, but -- as I say in the book -- when you're looking at overall trends in the entire society over time, those biases don't matter. What's interesting is not that one group is doing better than another, it's that all the groups are doing better than their parents or their grandparents -- precisely because something is changing in the culture that makes them better at taking IQ tests.
I feel like there's a general attitude about IQ here that's a little odd: just because the tests have been used towards racist ends in the past, doesn't mean there aren't appropriate ways to make sense of them. It reminds me, in a mirror image way, of hearing people say: "How can you still study Marx -- aren't you familiar with the Gulag?" Using IQ as a basis for defining biological differences between groups or individuals is wrong, but using it as a measure of cultural changes is perfectly revealing, though it's hardly the entire story, as I've said before.