Category Archives: childhood

everything bad continued — the author strikes back

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.

Children and Books: Forming a World-View

When I think about the part books played (and still play) in forming my world-view, I have to think about them as tethered to a set of circumstances. It is impossible to say, for example, whether it was Gardner’s Art Through the Ages that awakened my passion for visual art, or my teacher Gretchen Whitman, who introduced the book to me and led me through it.
The book is part of a matrix that is difficult to parse. How is one’s world-view formed? Certainly books are a part of the process, but maybe they function more as “tools” then as “beings.” Insofar as they are extensions of the people or circumstances that drove us to them. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that very few of these lists are the same.
It’s interesting that nobody confesses that children’s books formed their world-view. I was profoundly influenced by the books I read when I was a child. The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Wizard of Oz still resonate with me. Dorothy and Laura Ingalls were pioneers–girl scouts, who were always prepared and never complained. They were independent, pragmatic survivors. I’m not saying this is the best collection of virtues one could strive for, but, nevertheless I recognize them in myself and think they were engendered, to some extent, by those books. Also, I must mention the fantastic strangeness of Dr. Seuss (who prepared me for surrealism), Maurice Sendack, Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson.
Children’s books are there at the beginning, digging into our consciousness. The fact that children must, initially, be read to, illuminates something about how the book functions for humans. My son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens–characters, voices, colors–I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
I think people who are resistant to electronic books worry that this intimacy will be lost in a non-paper format. But clearly, it’s not the object itself, it’s the meaning brought to it by and through people. The medium won’t really change that.