Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's a Hack

I've got some topics covered, oh yeah, I've staked them like the undead. Now all I do is sit back with my feet up and let the updates roll in. The living is sweet.

1) About excessive water drinking (which I covered here) , John Stossel has this for Townhall: drinking eight glasses of water is not necessary, because we get plenty of fluid from our food. When your body does need more fluid, it has a marvelous mechanism for telling you to drink up. It's called "thirst." Now get off my back, water fascists!

2) Even a blind squirrel occasionally gets a nut. This NYT story's about a fortune cookie company who prints lottery numbers on the backs of their fortunes, and 110 people won second place Powerball awards using one of their combinations. (hat tip:Althouse)

3) Okay. What I said above about MG is scurrilous and untrue. I'm a hack and he's brilliant, but here’s Gladwell’s review in The New Yorker of Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You, a contrarian title that instinctively appeals though I disagree (again) that new smartness is emerging from consuming television and especially video games. My earlier screed on Flynn’s IQ research is here. Disclaimer: I adore escapism and the pleasures of consumption, but prefer honest labeling.

Johnson argues, and Gladwell seems to agree, that from Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas to The Sopranos and reality TV, modern television's making more cognitive demands on us. Part of the cognitive demand they describe is closure. Not the icky grief kind, but the human faculty to generate assumptions that fill informational gaps. Seeing the parts and perceiving the whole. But if we're talking closure, a prime example isn't new media. It's comics.

Comics display selected shards while you interpolate the rest of the images and action. Did you have to struggle with your thinker the first time you saw a comic? Probably not. Comic books and modern TV using non-explicit storytelling employ, but don't add, a capacity humans already have in spades. And as to multiple viewpoints a la Sopranos, the Batman TV series from almost 40 years ago alternated between as many as 5 or 6 viewpoints in an episode: Commisioner Gordon, the Chief, Batman and Robin, the villain(s), and sometimes Batgirl
all operating independently with nothing but a Meanwhile... or KAPOW! to ease the transition. Nobody accused that show of being brainy.

This next peeve's personal, since I write fiction. Gladwell says approvingly that Johnson's only half-joking about books (versus video games) following a linear path leaving readers passive passengers. Dreck! A reader not only fills details using closure but creates sights, smells, and every sensual impression from mere two-dimensional, non-representational squiggles. Books require participation and become a unique creation between each reader and the author. As for following linear paths, fiction depends on multiple viewpoints, timeshifts, and even unreliability of narrative. You'll never wonder whether a video monster is lying about or pretending to kill you, whether he's killing you in an alternate future or past, or if he's just a figment of dreams or drugs. The monster is always now, simply trying to kill you.

Video games are escapism that temporarily liberate us from social mores, natural law and even logic. But you can't use the skills of game consumption anywhere else without augmentation. Compare the mere gamer to the game reviewer who also plays but knows how to write and creatively pad expense accounts. While it's true most video game designers started as gamers, they may be only mediocre players while they must excel as creative strategists who use elements of art, computer programming, and enough process diagrams to crush a middle schooler. You can't get a scholarship for playing videos, but athletics still pay for college and the side effect of health is useful and attractive. The gamer's brawny thumbs often accompany the general vigor of a marshmallow with eyestrain.

With few exceptions, most of the celebrated "problem-solving" within games doesn't represent logical reasoning of probabilities, but using context-exclusive rules (okay for testing, lousy for living) and grinding trial and error. The most decorated Narcotics officer can't find all the goodies in Vice City because they're hidden arbitrarily to extend the game time and force you to appreciate every polygon. Many games that "withold critical information" actually rely on pixel-hunting or their own developers anonymously posting hints at online forums. If gaming builds the tolerance for delayed gratification as Johnson asserts, explain to me why all these Einsteins spend so much time swapping tips and money on cheat codes mags.

The willingness to rule nothing out and tenacity (itself rarer among gamers than Johnson suggests) isn't the same as intelligence. Let's just say I'd prefer a doctor that makes a diagnosis based on the most probable, not one who subjects me to every scan, scratch test, and oscopy that exists just in case I have an Easter egg in some canal.

We recognize intelligent problem-solving in real life as quick application of experience and likelihood, but it's not about memorizing nonsensical sequences that only have meaning in single instances without connection to physical or social realities. No matter the method of killing the last video monster or surmounting the last obstacle, though the previous challenge may well be required before alowing me to advance (too linear for anyone?), it won't conquer the next level for me where the rules may all change. Variety extends gameplay, but regardless of the bonus health points for shooting each tentacle before the third head, in the real world, there's nothing that a close-range barrage from an automatic weapon to the brain pan won't stop.

The virtual logic of gaming may one day converge upon life as most of us live it, though many parts of the world will have a long way to go, and I'm personally happy we're not there yet. But even now, people are working on ideas like sex suits with stimulators that will be activated by online interaction with people or games. Yay.

In some dystopian future, as robots tend the tubes and wires from which our failing meat sleeves dangle, as our synapses misfire while mentally reconstituting landscapes once accessible by shriveled tootsies we no longer use, that entity which we consider our being will encounter that last blue screen of death. And whatever remains of ourselves once the molecules have scattered will arrive at the Pearly Gates to answer St. Peter's query, "Restore your last saved game?"

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