Friday, January 05, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

I wanted to include one more posting on Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You and then on to other things. There is a passage in his book that summarizes what I have long thought was true but never had the words to express. As my previous post alludes, I am an avid reader and will strongly defend the benefits of reading to anyone. Yet, I get annoyed when people exalt reading as superior to other forms of media engagements such as film/TV watching or playing video games. Language of superiority should never enter the discussion. They are completely different forms of engagement and each comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. Those who exalt reading as a divine experience over against television as a waste of time due so on the basis of preconceived prejudices.

Johnson makes this point well with a little imaginative exercise. He quotes Marshall McLuhan who said, "The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be." We tend to be naturally resistant to change. Those who grew up on reading criticize the advent of radio. Those who grew up watching live theater criticize the film industry. Those who grew up on radio lament the arrival of the television and so on.

One place where this plays out today is the conflict between reading books and playing video games. Cultural critics love to complain about how our childrens' development is being stunted by choosing video games over reading. After all, everyone knows that reading is intellectually beneficial and stimulates the imagination while video games are devoid of any redeeming quality. Well, Johnson raises the issue of how much of this preconception is based upon genuine understanding of video games and how much is simply a reaction against a new form of media that is challengings the long-held truisms of the established media. So he imagines a parallel universe in which the playing of video games arose and became popular before the creation of books. In this universe, reading, because of its novelty, becomes the new craze among youth, threatening the video game establishment. He imagines the kinds of criticisms proponents of the older, more established form of media (video games) might level against this young upstart. The criticism goes like this:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new "libraries" that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia--a condition that didnt' even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead.


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