Sunday, April 24, 2005

Learning from Television

There is an article in this Sunday's NY Times Magazine called "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" and it really caused me to scratch my head. I'm still scratching. The article is by Steven Johnson, an author I had not heard of before. Apparently the article is from a book that is coming out next month. I might just buy that book.

The claim, no doubt true, is that for all the gore, sex, etc. on TV, quality from the point of view the intelligence required to watch the stuff has gone up over the last twentyfive or thirty years. Shows are more realistic in the sense that there are multiple threads of plot going on at the same time. Story lines are no longer linear, as they were in the '70s. Moreover, there are far fewer overt clues given in the dialog to let the viewer know what is going on. Furthermore there is often ambiguity and occasionally criticial pieces of information are left out of the story on purpose, to make the viewer work to understand what's happening.

According to Johnson this has been going on for years. And there is an economic rationale. As recording of TV programs has gotten more sophisticated the producers of TV shows have come to realize they are creating assets that viewers will watch again and again - if there is a compelling interest. Shows that are too simple might have an initial interest, but their simple story line will make them boring in a hurry. The complexity and ambiguity in the shows makes them worth viewing again. There are things that make sense the second time through which didn't register the first time.

The crazy thing, according to Johnson, is that this is happening not just for the primo series like ER, West Wing, and the Sorpanos. It is happening for the grungy shows too - like reality TV shows. Hmm,......... It seems even the Archie Bunkers and Home Simpsons of the world are getting smart about complexity, ambiguity, and nuance.

If you take Johnson's hypothesis seriously it puts a new wrinkle to all the religiosity we're seeing, from sports stars to to right wing pols. The idea is that some people have an aversion to figuring out what is going on in the multi-currented world in which we live. Whether that is because they intellectually can't do it or if it is dealing with the fear that accompanies the thought that everything seems so contingent, so uncertain or if there are other causes for the religiosity, I don't know. But it seems to me this is an admission that their reason and ability to work things through are limited. And it is not the filth of what is on TV or elsewhere in the media that cements the view. It is the complexity and the far from sure path to follow the complexity implies, if faith is not the guide.

The society as a whole is a teenager. That is a scary thought. Do you remember when you were teenager? My teenage years were an emotional struggle. There we good moments but a lot of unhappiness overall. However, there is a positive thought as well. I grew up and learned to live in my own skin. Maybe that is possible for our society and perhaps higher ed can help by the way we rethink our education role. I know for me personally, it was coming to appreciate my weaknesses and to bring them out rather than hide them which helped me cope. I wonder if there is a broader lesson here.

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