Tuesday, April 26, 2005

How Reality TV Makes You Smarter

Steven Johnson explains the Sleeper Curve in Watching TV Makes You Smarter, from Sunday's NY Times Magazine.

Excerpts from the article:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want...the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less...Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.

Consider the cognitive demands that televised narratives place on their viewers. With many shows that we associate with ''quality'' entertainment -- ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ''Murphy Brown,'' ''Frasier'' -- the intelligence arrives fully formed in the words and actions of the characters on-screen. They say witty things to one another and avoid lapsing into tired sitcom cliches, and we smile along in our living rooms, enjoying the company of these smart people. But assuming we're bright enough to understand the sentences they're saying, there's no intellectual labor involved in enjoying the show as a viewer. You no more challenge your mind by watching these intelligent shows than you challenge your body watching ''Monday Night Football.'' The intellectual work is happening on-screen, not off.

But another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties.

Instead of a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind...If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them to watch ''Survivor'' over ''Fear Factor.'' If they want to watch a mystery show, encourage ''24'' over ''Law and Order.'' If they want to play a violent game, encourage Grand Theft Auto over Quake. Indeed, it might be just as helpful to have a rating system that used mental labor and not obscenity and violence as its classification scheme for the world of mass culture.

Gee, I wonder if this guy is going to get any letters responding to this article.

I buy the premise that watching "dumb" TV will make you smarter - even some reality TV, where you can learn a good deal about competitive strategy and game theory. The danger of this article is that the already dense will will use it as ammunition to justify their couch-potato, obese, Homer Simpsonesque ways. There ought to be a concluding statement where the author recommends TV only if you are trading up from a less mentally engaging activity, such as, say, competitive tiddlywinks. If we want our kids to get smarter, and reap "cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads," then conventional reading should be argued for, and not The Apprentice.

None of this applies to me. I have no illusions about the effect of my Fear Factor on my intellect. Sometimes you have to give the fat noodle a break. No way I'm giving up my hour of wet cleavage and blood drinking. Madame Bovary can wait until 9.

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