Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Everything Bad is Good for You

I'm pretty much the resident Luddite at my house. If we're watching YouTube videos on my laptop, someone invariably unseats me at the keyboard because I'm too slow. The other three play with the whole gamecube/wii/computer network downstairs while I sit upstairs reading a book. So I liked the mental gymnastics involved in Steven Johnson's mind-game, proposed on p. 19 of Everything Bad is Good for You:

Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries--and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world fiilled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new "libraries" that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia--a condition that didn't even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised oon interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead.

Okay, so let's take this game one step further. Imagine we live in a world where some variation of the feed is possible. Obviously, as I've said, the novel Feed presents it as a thing not to be desired, but could we alter it to make it better? Walker says we should be able to turn it off. Eleanor says that instead of hooking directly into your brain, it should be a wrist unit with optional visor and earbuds. Ron says that the difference between using a laptop and having a feed is the "difference between wanting to DRIVE a car and wanting to BE one," but I suspect he would like the convenience of using his electronic calendar, "meeting maker," without having to get out his laptop every time he needs to check his schedule.

What would be the advantage of your modified feed, I asked the kids. You could look up information all the time, they said. You'd never be bored. You could show things to people, or send them links. You could chat without talking (this actually happens in Feed). Walker mentioned the cheating possibilities that chat could open up at school, which is, no doubt, why there is no such thing as school (only School TM) in the world of Feed, and why cell phones are completely banned from our local public schools already.

The most detailed answer I got about the advantage of a feed was about Walker's new game Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Evidently, he goes over to the computer and looks up "moves" and "combos" to use in the game, and then he has to go back over to the Wii and try to remember what the computer told him to do with his fingers to achieve that move or combination of moves. If he had a feed, he said, he could just look this stuff up and move his fingers while reading the information about it.

As a blogger, there would be lots of advantages to having some version of a feed. As Eleanor said, you could keep a "good ideas folder" going all the time. I could make a note about the mockingbird I heard do a convincing meow this morning while I was petting the rabbit, and when I turned around to see what cat was coming up behind me, I saw a bird. But then, maybe I'd never use that idea. Maybe my good ideas folder would get so big, it would be unmanageable. Maybe I'd have so many notes about birds and rabbits and cats that I couldn't keep track of them, and then I'd need more ways to make personal indices of things that interest me, and then pretty soon I'd want a whole education system to help me sort through all the information available to me on the world wide web....and I'd have reinvented School TM, where the only thing you learn is how to use your feed. I've seen several bloggers get to this point lately, saying that they've found they have to limit their "screen time" so they have time for a life. That makes me remember the South Park episode about World of Warcraft, in which people who triumph in the game "have no life" and the makers of the game fret about "how they can kill that which has no life."

I promised pros and cons of Feed, and don't mean to take the discussion back to cons every time. But it does seem that there need to be limits on how such a thing would work, and probably self-imposed limits would work about as well as those parental controls you can put on your tv--but how many people actually do it?


Joe said...

"In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries -- and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage."

Wow. Yeah. Imagine that. What if go, or mancala, or chess, or decks of cards, or dice, or balls and sticks, had predated widespread literacy. What do you suppose that would've been like?

(Admittedly, all of these games required a human opponent... but if people are still worried about that in the MMORPG age, they're not paying attention...)

Seriously, don't we have plenty of examples of how authors from Chaucer to Dickens have made fun of bookworms for exactly the reasons you cite?

Trapunto said...

Ooh, I love this. Particularly the dyslexia bit.