Sony PlayStation: Cognitive learning tool or evil time sucker? Salon readers debate Farhad Manjoo's review of "Everything Bad Is Good for You."

Published May 4, 2005 11:14PM (EDT)

[Read "Don't Kill Your Television," by Farhad Manjoo.]

Thanks for your nice review of Steven Johnson's new book. I haven't read it yet, but it seems from the reviews I've read that it fails, just as the corresponding indictments of television do, to take into account anything other than prime-time network television. It's nice to see the medium being defended, but I think he's missing an important point.

When I hear that television is for stupid people, or that it makes people stupid, I have to wonder why it's just assumed that I'm watching these four to six (depending on your definition of "network") channels exclusively. The rest of the 100 channels on my cable box are basically educational channels, broadcasting little nerdy documentaries about history, travel, science, nature, cuisine, etc., 24 hours a day. I do watch some excellent scripted shows -- I challenge anyone who dismisses television as for borderline retards to get through an episode of "Deadwood" without a dictionary, or maybe an encyclopedia -- as well as some great, fun, junk food TV. But honestly, I watch way more Discovery Science channel per week than "America's Next Top Model." I love television for the same dorky, nerdy reasons I love books: because they teach me, and I like learning.

-- Loula Burton

While Mr. Manjoo and Mr. Johnson state that which would seem obvious to those of us who were raised in the transformative era of video games (the Atari of my early days having been supplanted by the Sony über Alles system or whatnot), I was a tad disappointed that the negative effects of video games and other mass media were not mentioned. No one who has seen the changes in developing children in the last few decades can deny that children are thinking faster and multitasking better than previous generations. However, one need only go sit down for a meal at a local family restaurant to see the side effect this addiction -- yes, I said addiction -- can have on children. Teens plugged in to iPods and CD players, young boys and girls busily plonking away on their Game Boy Advances and Sony PSPs. Parents chat on their cell phones or tell little Tony to stop hitting his sister. No one fricking talks to one another, and consequently the children have a great deal of trouble behaving and interacting with one another.

Even worse, studies have shown that video games and television produce narcotic effects in the brain. Young children whose parents use video games as babysitting tools develop brain patterns and behaviors similar to those of children with ADHD. Indeed, how many kids on Ritalin today could be off it in a few weeks if their parents just threw away the goddamn Nintendo? Professionals who work in pediatric intervention clinics, such as my fianceacute;e (a speech language pathologist) are seeing a dramatic increase in referrals for communication and sensory disorders. Children develop these disorders because they lack social interaction, because they aren't going outside to run and play and aren't being picked up and swung around by their parents. A developing child's system screams out for this kind of stimulation.

The answer isn't a "one or the other" decision. A careful balance has to be struck. By all means, let your child play the Nintendo. But as soon as the hour is up, stick that thing in a closet and take him or her outside for some time on the swing set. We'll all be the better for it.

-- James Elliot

I agree with most of what Steven Johnson has to say about the state of mass media, particularly TV. Dramas and comedies, and even reality shows, are more complex and demanding now than they were, say, 20 years ago. But the same cannot be said of the news media, especially the wasteland of cable news channels, which continually get less and less sophisticated.

CNN, Fox and company are little more than a national water cooler, where rumor and gossip are mixed freely with a dash of actual reportage, and partisan (read: GOP) press releases are repeated nearly verbatim. Just last week, Nancy Grace was already sharpening her guillotine over the "missing bride" case in Michigan that inexplicably captivated the media for a few days. Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo, Scott Peterson--you would have to assume that these are the most important people in the world if cable news were your source of information.

When is the brain's need for challenging stimuli going to be perceived by the dolts who run the news media?

-- Jason Haney

How irritating are those who make arcane "Seinfeld" and "Simpsons" references in polite society. How casually they risk alienating, for example, minorities, foreigners, and anyone who didn't grow up watching those TV shows.

Familiarity with "Art Vandelay" (among other minutiae) doesn't mean I'm a smart person, just smart about "Seinfeld." In fact, I'd argue that such esoterica tends to make us more provincial and less well socialized -- like identity-formative teenage boys using made-up slang no one else understands.

To author Steven Johnson I would say this: Recreational drugs are more likely than TV to make one smarter, and with far fewer harmful side effects.

-- David Donnell

What exactly is going on? A form of "technology" that reduces the patterns of brain activity to sleeplike levels is extolled as better for us than books? Farhad Manjoo is obviously comparing the very best of television (which hardly anyone watches) with the very worst of fiction (which sells like hotcakes). Perhaps if he compared the very best of television (say, "Oz") with the very best of fiction (say, "War and Peace"), he would discover that the novel remains the more challenging form of fiction, not least of all in complexity and subtlety. Or, better, he could compare the very best nonfiction on television with even the most basic history book, and see which encourages more thinking. Video games and television, while occasionally enjoyable, can never take the pedagogical place of the written symbol. There is a very simple reason for this: the most difficult intellectual work involves the highest levels of abstraction. One cannot depict an abstract thought visually, only semantically.

-- Justin Evans

Although it's unfair to criticize a book from a review of it, I can't let Farhad Manjoo's love letter to Steven Johnson concerning "Everything Bad Is Good For You" go unanswered. Where is it written that "attention, memory, following threads" are the standards for measuring reading's benefits? Is this why we value "War and Peace" over the latest potboiler? I think not; rather it is the content of the book, and its effect on one's imagination, not one's cognitive skills, that we value. I don't "think" to respond to a book; I feel its impact; I only have to "think" when I try to tell you about it.

The idea that books are linear and noninteractive is simply wrong. A book is different every time we come to it, and it is different to everyone who reads it. Read it a thousand times, still Rabbit always runs, but why he runs will always be different. A video game is always the same, although we may see different parts of it on different occasions, and people may play it differently. (And it is also quite linear, as one can easily see from reading the underlying code.) Anyone who thinks that "reading is not an active, participatory process" does not understand what reading is. (I suspect that Steven Johnson does understand what reading is, and is simply being provocative here.)

It's obvious that video games do exercise the mind differently than books, particularly in their demand that one figure out the rules as one goes along. This is indeed a major achievement -- though some of us have the same exercise with Microsoft Word; who reads the manual anyway? Games like the "Sim City" series even show something about acts and consequences. But it is not always true in life -- in fact it is rarely true -- that success depends on an instant response to stimuli, and any game that teaches this, as most of them do, teaches something fundamentally wrong.

As for TV, it is certainly slick and sophisticated, but that hardly makes it a learning tool. I love "ER"; how many kids watch it? How many of any of us pay attention to "ER's" medical chitchat? That's all groovy background. Rather we care about what happens to Abby and whether Carter will eventually learn to live with his millions. We want to hear them say "Clear!" and use the paddles to bring someone back to life. But the only thing one can "learn" from "ER" is that medical professionals who can perform miracles on dying patients can be complete idiots in their private lives; "ER" is basically soap opera for adults.

What kids learn from TV is that celebrity scandals matter as much as war in Iraq, and that what kind of car you drive determines your social worth and general hipness. I don't see how "mass media prepares children for the increased difficulty that tomorrow's world will surely offer, and it does so in a way that reading a book simply cannot do." It doesn't prepare them at all. It offers them a slick carnival show and pretends it is real. TV shows don't exercise your brain, they are giant games of trivia that let us feel superior when we get the joke and make us feel dumb when we don't.

From what Manjoo says, Johnson has allowed his fascination with media to blind him to the message, not uncommon in the age of McLuhan, when there is popularly supposed to be no difference. Of course pop media are important; they show us ourselves and our culture. In this sense the TV remote alone is a greater tool than any single video game or TV show -- a trip around the dial shows us an electronic mandala. But a child growing up in this barrage of mostly junk is as likely to fall victim to it as to learn anything useful, just as a child growing up now in Iraq may become street smart if s/he isn't blown up.

-- Cliff Barney

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------