Monday, May 16, 2005

Everything bad is good bad good for you

Steven Johnson, the writer of Everything Bad Is Good For You and Dana Stevens, Slate's TV critic, have an email argument about whether TV and videogames today are really, as Johnson claims, making us smarter. Stevens is willing (and this, in itself, is a breakthrough admission for most culture critics) to concede that some videogames may be good for our IQs. However:
I was struck by a story you tell in the section on gaming about a man who was profiled in Wired who's deeply involved in a simulation game called Ultima Online. Having undertaken the task of turning his "avatar," or virtual persona, into an expert blacksmith, he was coming home from work every night to hours of repetitive mining labor in the sim world—essentially, working a second job at night. That you cheerily adduce this as evidence of the value of gaming strikes me as odd. To me, the irony of this guy's double shift seemed more like a bleakly Marxist critique of the replacement of real by artificial experience, and the complete effacement of leisure time. The Man has him coming and going; his boss gets eight hours of work out of him by day, the makers of the game by night.

If you look at the average American's TV-viewing habits, some of that same chain-gang logic applies. We're putting in nearly a full workweek—about 30 hours—in front of the screen. So what if we're all becoming geniuses at sussing out plot threads on ER? Unless we broaden our understanding of what these technologies are doing—not just to our IQ scores, but to our language, our social networks, our bodies, our imaginations—we run the risk of falling into a tautological feedback loop, in which technology has nothing to teach us except how to be better consumers of that same technology. And that would be really dumb.



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