Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Smart Machines, Vicarious Love, and the Book Trade


The has not been hurt at all by competition with the , says my old friend, McGraw Hill Vice President Why not? Because no one likes to read books on computers. Even though his company has made books available on line for several years, only .01 percent of readers use that option. It’s a bit more agreeable to read than textbooks on a screen, since the stories have no graphs or tables and you have only one column per page. (A textbook is different; your eyes flicker across both pages, looking at images along with your reading.) But even novels aren’t popular on line.

So university instructors are not going to be replaced by . Apparently, students need to interact with a – at least through , if not in one-on-one conferences. They never read their assignments before going to class. Probably it’s more efficient to listen first, then read.

In one respect, however, electronic instruction is making headway: with . In most freshman and sophomore university courses, instructors assign problem sets but they don’t actually mark them, Ed says. It consumes too much time. Nevertheless, some knowledge is cumulative, especially in math, statistics, and the physical sciences. Students must learn how to solve each new skill in a predictable sequence, and they need to master each level before going on to the next one. It’s for these courses that publishers are developing electronic workbooks that professors are adopting with enthusiasm. Each student can be required to submit her problem sets on a regular schedule, and the computer marks them immediately and points out where her reasoning went wrong. Ed has high hopes for further advances in this of instruction, even while he denies that professors or books will become obsolete.

Inevitably, our chat turned toward the wider impact of technology on and ability — not so much in the use of machines for academic instruction, but in our playful use of them. Ed considers his grandkids smarter than we were at their age and attributes their sophistication to television and video games. He once got hooked on a himself. It was set to get harder as he went along, but when he failed, he didn’t want to quit. Instead, he just moved back one step and tried again. He’s sure it was making him smarter, and I didn’t doubt him, though I’ve had very little experience with (and even less interest in) video games. I just take ’s word for it that they are raising our IQ.

But when it came to episodic , Ed and I didn’t see things exactly the same way. We do agree that the new, challenging action stories require you to think fast in order to understand the plot. We even agree that this ability exercises the brain and augments certain that are particular aspects of intelligence. Where we disagree is about the value of this kind of skill, as opposed to other insights. I think the speed of the plot does confer certain kinds of aptitudes on the viewer – at a price. Ed is pleased, for example, that he can by following a plot while also reading the little messages that scroll along the bottom of the screen. I can’t do that very well and don’t really want to acquire such an ability. I prefer stories that involve reflection and that deepen my through hearing the characters discuss the meaning of their situations.

Our conversation was limited to appraising the intellectual impact of the new storytelling technologies – not their emotional or , which actually are just as important, though completely unrecognized (except in my forthcoming book). It is odd that films have been ignored as an influence on health, considering that scientists have been using them experimentally for decades. Their lab assistants stimulate particular emotions in subjects and measure their physiological and psychological reactions – ignoring the fact that those films can benefit or harm the viewer.

For example, only yesterday I received an email on a health list to which I regularly subscribe. It pointed out that , a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, performed such an experiment with 38 couples. She had each couple discuss some happy event, then watch a five-minute scene from a , then . The result, described the latest issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, was lower levels of the stress hormones and and higher levels of in both men and women. Those shifts all contribute to cardiac health (especially reducing high blood pressure) and possibly even explain the longer of happily married couples as compared with people living without warm partners.

The same researchers acknowledge that there are other ways to compensate for singlehood. They suggest, for example, that people go around hugging their friends and acquaintances more. But there are limits to that solution. I am spending three months in California, away from my usual set of huggers. Californians are extremely expressive, but they would consider me decidedly weird if I went around hugging the people I encounter in coffee shops. My rate of hugging is definitely reduced by living here, but there are other ways of making up for that. Just as Dr. Grewen did in her experiment, I can watch sweet romantic movies on my laptop and TV set. And I can tell when I’m secreting oxytocin. I hunt precisely for films that are likely to have that effect. And I fall asleep every night hugging a pillow. Why don’t the experimenters themselves recommend such practices? Beats me. Maybe because “" is considered a ridiculous notion. It shouldn’t be. Almost every human being experiences it sometimes. We just have to acknowledge it as an important feature of our emotional world. So your assignment for today is to mention movies to at least one person as a valid supplement to their regular hugging relationships.

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