Forces side with screen in the war between books and TV

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am

Forget that bulky cultural ballast, the book. If you want to wise up, embrace modern electronic visual entertainment.

That is the message from cultural commentator Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You.

In a recent Wired story, Johnson wrote: 'The best example of brain-boosting media may be videogames. Mastering visual puzzles is the whole point of the exercise, whether it's the spatial geometry of Tetris, the engineering riddles of Myst or the urban mapping of Grand Theft Auto.'

He acknowledges that today's parents may have improved their minds by learning to interpret 'the visual grammar of TV advertising', but that is child's play compared with Pokemon.

According to Johnson, just watching contemporary TV is a complex experience that could increase your brainpower.

We should watch plenty of TV because even reality shows can function as 'elaborately staged group psychology experiments'. They stimulated the brain rather than stun it, the writer maintains.

Some readers may find his line of thinking outrageous.

When I was growing up, my mother called the TV 'the goggle box'. She said it could rot your brain, and this was the commonly held view. I understood the same applied to Pong: a black-and-white digital tennis game marked by monotony.

To stop me from becoming a zombie, she limited my exposure to both Pong and TV.

She urged me to read instead, and as much as possible because books, so the doctrine went, were the source of all wisdom. After all, they were written by seers and they obliged you to use your imagination and learn new words.

The 'books-good, TV-bad' assumption remains potent across society, and not just because of the influence of the concerned parent brigade.

Progressives and vaguely cool individuals slam TV, too. The aversion is perhaps best expressed by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in their classic anthem called Television.

'One nation under God has turned into one nation under the influence of one drug: television, the drug of the nation breeding ignorance and feeding radiation,' the Heroes begin, then proceed to attack the 'methadone metronome' with a passion.

They lament that what the countless channels pump out is a threat to literature, and nothing less than the life of the mind.

'TV is the reason why less than 10 per cent of our nation reads books daily, why most people think Central America means Kansas, socialism means un-American and apartheid is a new headache remedy.'

The Heroes' diatribe notwithstanding, I wonder whether it is right to revile TV while revering an ancient paper innovation.

Books may well foster the imagination and develop vocabulary skills but they do not necessarily force you to engage with ideas. In truth, reading a book can be as passive an experience as watching the box.

You may plough through 400 pages of Timothy Mo or Charles Dickens but wind up no smarter if you failed to pay attention.

And concentrating is hard because books offer no frills, such as animation or sound. A book can wash over you so easily.

Sure, Mo and Dickens stretch your mental sinews through the elan of their plotting but, as Johnson claims, so does TV. Modern programmes offer intricate narratives, moral ambiguity and linked, twisting plotlines; in a word, sophistication.

I used to watch that slapstick splatter movie Tom & Jerry while today's kids and adults have The Simpsons, that carnival of questionable behaviour, innuendo and allusion.

However, information-age television can still be moronic.

Likewise, not every product on the gaming front has the subtlety of Go or chess. In fact, mindless shoot 'em ups tend to predominate.

And although Grand Theft Auto may compel the player to think strategically, it is a sick programme because it encourages theft, arbitrary violence and murder.

Patricia Marks Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says gaming can increase 'non-verbal IQ', including pattern recognition and spatial processing ability. Gaming may also boost conventional IQ by encouraging inductive reasoning.

Before electronic games emerged, players typically learned a game's rules in advance.

Now, they typically learn by trial and error in action. They must think on their feet: a handy skill in the 'now economy'.

Perhaps we should accept that the forces under scrutiny teach more than they tranquillise. And that is good news for couch potatoes. That much-maligned breed may, in fact, deserve mental athlete status. Sink back and wise up.