24 May 2005
Morning Edition had a quick little story about a new book discussing how people have continued to get smarter from generation to generation. The author of Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson, asserts that even though we've been sitting in front of televisions, video games, and computers for a couple generations now, it's still exercising our brains and proving that we're smarter.
Johnson uses popular television of past and present to demonstrate his point. He compares the complexity of plots and relationships of older shows to those of today. Shows like 24 are hugely popular, but to follow it, you must comprehend so many more relationships than the comparably popular shows of the past, such as Dallas. Hill Street Blues had a very rough start back in its day due to its complexity, and in the end, the network needed to simplify it a bit for the audiences of the time. In the past, the general population could never comprehend and get wrapped up in television shows as complex as we do today.
Video games represent the same progressions. Kids are reaching for more and more complex and immersive games which actually exercise their minds. The author keeps his ideas on brain exercise separate from the effects all this has on attention span and multitasking, as they have observably different effects on our capabilities.
On that note, I'm not keeping up at all. I can follow CSI, but I don't really exercise my brain on TV otherwise, and for a long time, I've not had a taste for video games with any complexity, stories, or anything I need to study and learn just to play. I prefer the simpler arcade-style game which I can absorb and play immediately. That may very well be an attention span issue, or just due to my limited time for gaming.
Toward the end of the interview, Johnson relates that his 4-year old son these days can manage to go get his Mom's Powerbook, open it, login with his password (essentially logging into a Unix account), pull up a browser, and visit sesamestreet.com on his own. Check out the audio of the story for the actual complete quote.
As I write this, I can't help but consider alternate forms of entertainment. Has theater, literature, and radio gotten more complex or stayed about the same? Were we regularly comprehending these complex relationships in those forms, and it just took us longer to adapt our intelligence to the worlds on the small screen? There's plenty of classic literature that people today just don't get, but is that due to language barriers or complexity of plot? What about the evolution of storytelling on television? Maybe the producers of the shows today have just learned how better to structure the information for us.
Regardless of the questioning, IQ scores have been on the rise over the past generations, so something causing it, and Steven Johnson thinks this is it.