Steven Johnson wrote a book recently called Everything Bad is Good for You, which argues that television and video games are making people smarter. I know virtually nothing about video games but I believe he’s right about television. In fact, I’d already made the same point about TV and intelligence in my own book – on the basis of the same evidence: that IQ levels are increasing three points per decade around the world. Not all aspects of intelligence are improving in the same way, but specifically such factors as spatial relationships, which might be influenced by watching a screen.
Johnson (see photo) has previously written popular books and articles about the ways in which specific kinds of challenging brain activities alter the very structure of the brain. It’s comparable to building bigger muscles through body-building exercises. When you learn how to juggle, there’s a part of your brain that enlarges. A different part enlarges when you memorize the street map, for example, as London cab drivers must do to qualify for their jobs. Whatever you do that puts you through a mental workout will develop that particular aptitude somewhat and affect the corresponding brain structure.
Most people say that television dramas are mindless drivel, but Johnson believes otherwise. He says that shows have become more complex and subtle over the years, requiring viewers to pay attention and think fast, just to follow what is going on. Whereas thirty years ago there would be one plot per one-hour episode, now there may be up to a dozen. There is far more ambiguity, too. The writers do not allow the characters to articulate all their intentions and interpretations. We have to guess, sometimes piecing together bits of information that refer back to a statement that may have been uttered three episodes earlier. There’s a lot of irrelevant information in the dialogue for the viewer to sift through; you must listen carefully to pick out the significant comments while ignoring the rest. With so much action packed into an episode, the story must move quickly. The scenes are fast-paced and cut short in the editing room. Blink your eyes and you may miss something crucial for understanding the plot.
One TV show that Johnson cites to illustrate all these trends is ER, the series in which George Clooney made his mark on Hollywood. There may be no connection, but I can’t help imagining one between ER and Syriana – not, of course, in their content but in the qualities that, according to Johnson, make audiences smarter. Complexity, ambiguity, implicit but not explicit meanings, fast cutting, unexpressed intentions, and so on. I found it hard work to follow Syriana. This is not a criticism, for I respect the show’s message and think it will make us smarter in some ways.
I even believe it’s going to make lots of spectators more savvy about the looming oil crisis and the corruption that greed creates. There are damn few characters with integrity in the show, and they don’t come out as winners in the end. As an action film, it will appeal more to men than women and it may confirm the worst prejudices of political cynics. This is a film made by an idealist, reminding us of our own forgotten ethical concerns, but it is a cautionary tale, a story about the defeat of idealism by avarice. That’s okay. I am willing to accept the film’s sobering reminders, its call to moral vigilance. I am just troubled by my inability to follow the story. I watched so little ER over the years that my IQ has not kept up, and now it’s too late.
Besides, I wasn’t cut out for that kind of intelligence anyhow. There are several different kinds of intelligence, not just one. Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, takes pleasure in identifying more and more new dimensions of smartness. I’m good at one or two of them, but subnormal at others – especially at the strategizing skill that a person requires to follow these newfangled television shows or, for that matter, Syriana. I prefer to explore empathically the psychological states of characters and the philosophical issues that are troubling them. That takes slower, more discursive dialogues than Clooney’s movie offers. I wish I’d been invited into the inner life of the protagonist — indeed into anyone’s inner life. Clooney’s character does learn from his wasted life and finds – I guess – some kind of redemption before the end. I just wish he’d been allowed to articulate what he’d learned, passing it on to the moviegoing audience before meeting his own fate.
Some reviewers have criticized Syriana for talking too much. I don’t think that’s the problem. It’s what they don’t say that left me unsatisfied. I did, however, love one little by-play between a torturer and his victim, where the torturer threatens to make the victim recant his deepest beliefs – but notes that it will be hard in this case, since he has no deep beliefs. Exactly so. And he’s not the only character who lacks real beliefs. That very absence may be the factor explaining the lack of integrity in all of them. I wonder whether that’s what the writer wanted us to learn.