The drip, drip, drip of the popular culture dulls our senses. An open society with high technology exposes increasing numbers of adults and children to the lowest common denomination of sex and violence.
When I wrote that two years ago, I was swamped with letters, mostly from parents who wanted to know what they could do to protect their children. They knew about the movie ratings, the chips for blocking pornography on television and the Internet, but it was the very pervasiveness of the electronic culture that bothered them. When their children left the house, they could visit friends with access to all kinds of vulgarity on the screen, from commercials to R- and even X-rated movies.
So I was surprised to find myself quoted in a book by Steven Johnson, who knows all about how the brain is affected by the new technology. In "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," he defends computer games, television shows, movies and the Internet as not only good for stimulating gray matter but for making us all, especially the kids, smarter if not more intelligent. He accuses me of being a weatherman, employing the wrong barometer to measure which way the wind is blowing.
He says the problem with such Neanderthals -- and there are lots of us -- is that we evaluate everything new based on what we know from the recent past. This naturally colors the way we see the present. What if, he asks mischievously, computer games had preceded books? We would probably be saying that books are bad for children because they understimulate the senses, isolate the reader and keep youngsters from learning the social graces. In his fantasy scenario, libraries would be dismal places where young, formerly vivacious children sit quietly in cubicles or at desks oblivious to their peers. Reading would be perceived as submissive, in contrast to games encouraging participation, social activity and leadership.
This is an engaging argument written in a lively style. It's most persuasive when he defines how the best of the games deliver sophisticated information in a format that informs without becoming pedantic. After an hour of playing SimCity2000, a game about the difficulties of urban planning in New York, his 7-year-old nephew identified a problem in a rundown manufacturing district: "I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates."
He even makes a case to counter objections to the wildly flashing images of animated cartoons. Instead of criticizing them for encouraging short attention spans, with any education dependent on entertainment, he argues that we should appreciate how such games prepare a child for the complex world where mental muscle requires keeping track of a multiplicity of images and story lines: "The real world doesn't come in nicely packaged public service announcements, and we're better off with entertainment that reflects that fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity."
But he avoids the "values" question, and the way that violent and sexual content plays havoc with immature minds. Nor does he deal with the large numbers of children who aren't supervised by parents after school, who derive their values from the peer group rather than from adults in the family.
His book is a polemic to make us think about the way the brain engages the electronics of popular culture, so that children learn to cope with a changing and demanding world, but he's talking to families who can counter the deleterious messages inherent in many of the games and shows. He emphasizes the "cognitive workout," not the negative messages, but by avoiding issues of content, he ignores the moral questions. His argument doesn't dispute the value of a Dickens novel, which forces a child to think about the impact of a character's actions on others, but focusing on the processes of the electronic culture ignores the impact of content that turns human beings into abstractions and glamorizes evil behavior. He discounts the drip, drip, drip of the ethically empty message that it's only a manipulation of a computer mouse to kill a cop, slit a hooker's throat or join in a drive-by shooting.
It's obvious that Steven Johnson likes books; he chooses to make his case in one. He even invokes the dictum bequeathed by the ancient Greeks that moderation should govern behavior. And so it should. The best of the games no doubt require patience to learn and the kind of "stick-to-itiveness" that our grandmothers said was necessary for the development of every child. But that's just not enough to justify the damage done to the most vulnerable among us.