Everything bad is good for you
The ‘Sleeper’ Curve
‘Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important …. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.’
‘Learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analysing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding’. (p41)
In Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ the hero awakes from suspended animation to find that in the future everything he had been taught was bad for him (like cream cakes and cigarettes) has been discovered to be good for him, and vice versa.
Steven Johnson argues that participation in popular media, far from ‘dumbing down’ intellectual capacity, is enhancing intelligence: in fact ‘making us smart’. Because the routes to enhancing intelligence are non-traditional (games, TV shows and the Internet instead of books and plays) they may be judged by the wrong criteria (‘new genres are seen as pseudo-versions of old genres’), and their positive effect underestimated.
Part one: new media
Computer games provide regular ‘rewards’ to players, in return for a sometimes major investment of time and effort. The content of the games is often intellectually trivial (shooting monsters, rescuing princesses) but Johnson argues that games engage - and hence develop - decision making skills: a work-out for the mind.
‘Novels may activate the imagination and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, choose, prioritise… if you peer inside a gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.’
The gaming methodology requires the gamer to hypothesise and test the rules of the game.
‘When gamers interact with these environments they are learning the basic procedures of the scientific method’
He argues that the information processing undertaken by games players is more complex than simply multi-tasking or coping with rapidly changing information.
‘It is not about tolerating or aestheticising chaos. It is about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.’
Modern media forms involve multiple threads, deliberate withholding of information, and analytical challenges to the viewer, who is thereby forced into a more active role.
‘There is a difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent. With many TV classics the intelligence arrives fully formed on the words and actions of the characters onscreen…. But (recently) programming on TV has increased the demands it places on the viewers’ mental faculties.’
The features of TV that – he argues – develop audience intellectual engagement are multithreading, ambiguity, information overload, complexity, multiple layers of meaning
‘Viewers no longer require the training wheels… Part of the pleasure comes from cognitive labour’
‘The process of acclimating to the new reality of networked communications has had a salutary effect on our minds... Exploring non-linear document structures has become second nature’
The rise of the Internet has challenged our minds in three fundamental and related ways: by virtue of being participatory, by forcing users to learn new interfaces, and by creating new channels for social interaction.
Internet participation is active not passive. Interactivity is good for cognitive development. Content is actively created not passively consumed. An example of massive-volume online content creation is provided by blogging. ‘Better to have minds actively composing the soap opera of their lives than zoning out in front of someone else’s’
The new interfaces exercise the cognitive mind by themselves providing a learning task. ‘The extra layer of cognitive involvement derives largely from the increased prominence of the interface.’ You have to learn to use the tools of the interface, but you also have to learn the concepts and rules that govern their use. And these interfaces have increased in complexity.
Social connection. The Internet is less socially isolating that television. It develops social cognitive skills.
‘The new social network applications have done something that the visionaries never imagined: they are augmenting our people skills as well, widening our social networks, and creating new possibilities for strangers to share ideas and experiences.’
Online communities, blogging, hypertext and mailing lists are particular features which support participation and interaction.
Have films become more complex and demanding? The situation is mixed. At all levels film is characterised by faster edits, more complex visual content. Quality films also have greater narrative complexity with more characters, more plot threads, and non-standard narrative structures (e.g. Memento).
‘The mind-benders have truly flowered as a genre’
But blockbusters are simplified and unchallenging. His argument is that film is limited by its time constraints in a way that other new media are not.
The Flynn Effect
The average IQ of society as a whole has increased – a change masked by the recalibration of the test to retain the metric that IQ 100 = average. This improvement is known as the Flynn effect (after civil rights activist James Flynn who first described it, when rebutting racist uses of IQ measurement). As this improvement can not be explained by genetic alteration it must be due to environmental change.
‘If we aren’t getting these cognitive upgrades from our diets or our classrooms, where are they coming from?... It is the change in our mental diet.’
The ability to take in a complex system and learn its rules on the fly is a talent with real-world application.
The social psychologist Carmi Schooler sees the Flynn effect as a result of increasing environmental complexity.
‘To the degree that the environment rewards cognitive effort, individuals should be motivated to develop their intellectual capacities and to generalise the resulting cognitive processes to other situations.’
The key to cognitive development is to demand complex cognition and to reward it. The argument of this book is that the complex and interactive modern media do just this.
The improvement in IQ performance has some important limitations:
- The effect is not seen at the top end of the curve – the middle ground and lower reaches have improved, but not the proportion of very high IQs has not increased
- Flynn himself has argued that the increase in performance in IQ tests has not correlated to any improvement in real-world intelligence, just an ability to pass IQ tests.
The Flynn Effect is driven by three forces: economic, technological, and cognitive.
The economic forces that drive cognitive complexity are to do with the market for media repetition and revisiting (videos, syndication, TV franchises, DVDs etc.) which means that a TV show or game earns money not by grabbing interest but by retaining it over several cycles. This removes the economic pressure to go for the lowest common denominator, and encourages producers to create repeatable (i.e. complex) products.
The technological forces that drive cognitive complexity are obvious – the technology that allows repetition, and the production of new platforms with a high information volume, interactivity, and non-linear structures. In addition the Internet allows ‘fans’ to produce meta-commentary on these media.
‘These sites function as a kind of decoder ring for the Sleeper Curve’s rising complexity’
The mental characteristics that drive cognitive complexity are the adaptability and flexibility of the brain, which can be improved through stimulation. Rapid technological change, in itself, drives cognitive development. The mind adapts to adaptation.
‘Adapting to an ever-accelerating sequence of new technologies trains the mind to explore and master complex sequences.’
The most effective learning takes place at the edges of competence: building on existing knowledge and skills, but taking them further. Technological and media change also takes this pattern.
‘Make a game too hard and no one will buy it, make it too easy and no-one will buy it. Make a game where the challenges evolve alongside your skills, and you’ll have a shot at success. And you will have built a powerful educational tool to boot.’
The book argues that the prophets of a ‘brave new World’ style of dumbed-down passive culture are mistaken about the cognitive structures of the mind.
‘We know from neuroscience that the brain has dedicated systems that respond to and seek out new challenges and experiences. We are a problem-solving species and when we confront situations where information needs to be filled in or a puzzle needs to be untangled, our minds compulsively ruminate on a problem until we’ve figured it out.’
The breadth of information has been expanded, and it is far more participatory. However, there are certain forms of experience that cannot be readily conveyed in the new connective, abbreviated form. Modern media de-emphasise long, sequential works which slowly develop a complex idea.
Electronic media can be intelligent but it is a different kind of intelligence from that promulgated by the print media.
‘The Sleeper Curve suggests that popular culture is not doing a good job at training our minds to follow a sustained textual argument or non-interactive narrative.’
However, violence and the portrayal of ‘bad behaviour’ are not new features of human story telling, and should not be counted as hidden costs. This is because violent entertainment has always existed, and because the causal connection with real life violent behaviour is not clear-cut (or so he argues).
The book is not arguing that new media are uniformly positive, nor better than old media like books.
‘Yes, the trends are towards media complexity, yes games and TV shows and films have cognitive rewards that we should better understand and value, but some of these cultural works are more rewarding than others.’
However the criteria used to determine what is rewarding/educational should be made more sophisticated.
‘The true test (of content) should be whether it engages or sedates the mind… does it map a complex social network… does it involve solving problems and managing resources… the selection principle is based around cognitive challenge.’
Some comments from Alison
This book conveys many ideas which have implications for the development of educational content. These ideas are in general not new, but they are presented here in an engaging non-nonsense style, and have therefore spurred debate (meta-processing in the book’s terms).
Key ideas, in a nut-shell, which could be extrapolated to online content development for education:
- Content must both demand and reward cognitive effort
- Repetition, revisiting, and re-visioning are tools of complexity
- The importance of play, and engaging the mind’s own complexity-seeking behaviour
- The significance of an incremental increase in complexity (‘the most effective learning takes place at the edges of competence’)
- The well-documented importance of interactivity, control and engagement
- Utilise evaluation criteria which analyse not format or content, but complexity and conceptual challenge
Some of the causal and conceptual models in the book are somewhat simplistic, and I think he overlooks issues of quality which are not about complexity but about ambiguity and suggestion.
I think some of the problems with this book arise because the author is originally a computer game fan, and the complexity of games is a matter of iterative additional information, like a ball of string becoming progressively more tangled. With other media the complexity can arise in other ways, and relate to other issues, to do with moral ambiguity or character nuance, that aren't actually about quantitative breadth of information, but about qualitative depth of concept.
I think that modern interactive self-supporting content features such as blogging, wikis and meta-narrative could be utilised more adventurously in the development of educational content.