Two interesting columns

Two interesting columns May 14, 2005

Two interesting columns in today’s National Post.

1. Andrew Potter reviews Steven Johnson‘s Everything Bad Is Good for You, which evidently argues that “our culture is getting more complex and neurally stimulating, year after year,” thanks to the much-reviled mass media, and that “critics have failed to appreciate the merits of video games, reality television and the Internet.” And why have they failed to appreciate these merits?

The problem is that by concentrating our attention on the content of our media, we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by an excessive concern for their social value. Johnson suggests that we change the subject somewhat. He proposes to treat culture as a system driven by colliding causal forces — more like a weather pattern that needs explaining, instead of a text in need of decoding. From this perspective, non-literary media are valuable not because of the moral lessons they impart, but in the cognitive skills they foster. Johnson takes a look at various media and shows how each is becoming more intricate and demanding. Video games have evolved from Pong and Pac-Man to the multi-dimensional sophistication of Half-Life and The Sims. Meanwhile, the narrative structure of television shows has evolved from Dragnet and Starsky and Hutch into The Sopranos and 24, whose formal complexity rivals that of Middlemarch.

The key insight here — which Johnson adapts from Marshall McLuhan, who got it from Harold Innis — is that media are environments to which our minds must adapt. Different media are biased towards different forms of thinking and learning, so someone socialized in a predominantly literary culture will need to acquire different skills than someone immersed in a world of digital entertainment. As our culture gets more complex, our brains are forced to adapt and we become more adept at the skills required to navigate that complexity. Playing video games and watching Survivor hones our talents for things like prioritizing, trial-and-error problem solving, strategic thinking and pattern recognition.

I almost never watch TV or play video games, so I have little to say on this — except to say that what few thoughts I have on video games have generally been to defend them against accusations of excessive violence and to point out their pro-social benefits, similar to the arguments Gerard Jones makes in Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (my review). So make of all that what you will.

2. Anne Kingston, startled by the sudden marriage of Renee Zellweger to some country musician after “an intense two-week courtship”, turns to Ted Huston, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, to see how long a couple should know each other before tying the knot, in an article that is, alas, available only to National Post subscribers. She writes:

Huston is the authority on the correlation between length of courtship and marital success (assuming, as we do, that marital success should be measured in terms of longevity). His fascinating 2003 study, Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health, charted the relationships of 168 couples since 1979.

Definite patterns emerged. The most happily married couples had harmonious courtships that averaged 25 months in duration. Couples most likely to divorce fell into two groups: those who married impetuously and those who had drama-filled courtships and waited beyond three years to marry (apparently, holding off for so long can signal deep-rooted doubts about the marriage itself, the relationship or one’s partner).

This last paragraph jumped out at me, because just two nights ago, during the Q&A; after the cast-and-crew screening for The Big V, I had mentioned that, prior to getting married, I had always believed that I would have to know a woman for at least a year before deciding whether to marry her (if only to see what she’s like during all the holidays), but if it took more than two years to make the decision, then that wouldn’t be a good sign. As it happens, I believe I told this to the woman who is now my wife when we met on our first date back in January 2003. And as things turned out, we were married in February 2005 — almost exactly 25 months after we met. So Huston’s study sounds very promising!

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