I was a little disappointed by his previous book, Mind Wide Open, but that might be just a tad unfair, because, psychologically speaking, I’m probably a bit more sophisticated than his baseline reader. But this stuff is good. Popular culture today, Johnson argues, isn’t dumbing us down, it’s smartening us up. Analyze the plot of a typical episode of The Sopranos and compare it to The Dukes of Hazzard, and you’ll see what he’s getting at. Modern audiences expect — demand — more sophisticated plotting than the audiences of 20 years ago. Is it because they’re getting dumber?
My aha! moment came a couple months ago after playing 24 hours of video games with my son. Video games today are immensely more complex than the games I grew up with. The demands on memory alone are astounding.
I spent the past few weeks watching Disney’s new version of Little House on the Prairie with my kids. The complexity of the new show makes the 1970s Michael Landon version look like Saturday morning cartoons (and I don’t doubt that today’s cartoons are also immensely more complex than Hong Kong Phooey or Super Friends). I really think Johnson has a point: contemporary popular culture places significantly more cognitive demands on today’s audience than it did even 25 years ago.
So what’s all this fuss we’re constantly hearing about today’s kids not having the same attention span as kids used to? About their lack of patience, their hyperactivity? If they need to be so smart to deal with contemporary culture, then why do they seem so lacking in other areas?
I suspect these two (admittedly anecdotal) observations aren’t actually incompatible. “Patient” is different from “smart.” The kids of the past had more patience — and they needed it, because their popular culture wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. Today’s pop culture doesn’t demand patience; it demands mental agility. Teachers and classical musicians are disappointed in today’s kids, because paying attention in school or sitting still for a concert demands patience more than brain power.
Now whether these kids will go on to greatness in the “real world” is probably still an open question. The workplace requires both patience and smarts. Today’s kids have clearly learned the latter; the question is, wil they be able to muster the former?
Update: Turns out Steven Johnson has a blog. Which I would have known if I had actually read Ben’s post. Think I’ll add that one to my links list.