Brain Candy

People are getting smarter. Remove the periodic recalibration of IQ tests that keep the mean IQ at 100, and you find that average intelligence is rising as the decades pass.

For the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell covers Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You. Johnson pins causes for rising IQ on the increasing complexity of pop culture. As much energy as we spend pointing fingers at the idiot box for dumbing us down, TV puts “greater cognitive demands” on us today than it did 30 years ago. Compare the simple, linear, single-plotline pace of “Dukes of Hazzard” with an episode of “The Sopranos” or “Desperate Housewives” and you see a marked uptick in complexity and the demands put on the viewer to keep track of multiple threads and do lots of “filling in” (less is spelled out for the viewer). Johnson sees the same trend in video games — steadily increasing complexity putting ever-greater intellectual demands on the player.

Most of the people who denounce video games, he says, haven’t actually played them—at least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today’s games belong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the “walk-throughs� for “Grand Theft Auto III�—that is, the informal guides that break down the games and help players navigate their complexities—is fifty-three thousand words long, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

Have to say I’m a hard sell on these points, but it’s not an unconvincing argument. Might make a good summer read.

Music: The Meters :: Liver Splash

2 Replies to “Brain Candy”

  1. Hey Les – That was a fascinating read, thanks. In that piece, Johnson spends most of his effort explaining the differences between general and specific IQ, and the relationship between inherited and environmental IQ quotients. He doesn’t go into pop culture much at all.

    Bought his book yesterday, will read it over next week’s break.

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