Everything Bad is Good for You

I recently completed reading Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You. Having heard Johnson on WNYC promoting his book and discussing the ways in which new media forms, particularly video games and television programming, were affording cognitive benefits to its consumers, I was intrigued enough to pick-up a copy.

Rather than reiterate his argument (you may find any number of recaps throughout the web), I will instead forward some concerns. First, however, I should note that I do believe that he is correct in asserting that some forms of media are providing a “cognitive workout? to its consumers, particularly in the sense that it provides an expanded opportunity to exercise and challenge problem solving skills. If we temporarily set aside some larger issues, many video games immerse its users into a fecund world of problem, solution finding and reward. I think winning in these worlds can provide a sense of efficacy and reward that is often lacking in “the real world?. Thus, I think Johnson is right in seeking the ways one is rewarded when engaging with a digital environment (whether the user is granted something needed to move-up in a game, or the way one finds humor in getting an inside-joke on television).

However, problem-solving is only one aspect of life (and in my opinion, not particularly the most important). Too often, contemporary discourses, backed by psychology and cognitive science, over-emphasize the importance of problem solving skills to the detriment of other aspects. I came to this awareness through my years as a Computer Science undergraduate, where the program demanded constant problem solving and the students were more than willing and particularly apt in fulfilling this demand. Despite their aptitude for solving problems, the students were one sided: they could solve a problem, yet failed to formulate a vision for society where they took into account why such problems were being solved. Questions such as why x technological widget should be produced and what is its value to humanity were rarely asked.

Hence, my question of Johnson’s book is one of production. Can the children of mass-media and video game culture produce their own problems, guided by a vision of themselves, their contemporaries, and the world at large? If such a vision can be articulated, will it consider the dire circumstances plaguing most of the world, or will it only further the proliferation of problem solving environments, leading to a new generation of cognitive geniuses who shy away from the world’s authentic problems? Will the immense problem solving capacity ever be target towards world hunger and poverty, or simply the further accumulation of private capital?

The problem with discussing the “content? of video games or television is that it always falls into the traditional categories of morals and ethics, where sex and violence are the chief concerns. I do not care so much about these things but more so about the ability for one to find purpose and meaning in life. Are we providing such an avenue for today’s youth, or is our best hope the pleasure found in solving complicated problems, irrespective of the actual problem being solved? Although solving complicated problems is surely preferable to the mind-numbingly dull tasks required of work in the industrial age, is this the best that we can offer?

The Newest Postmodern Artifact?

Life Is RandomI re-read this week (for class) Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson argues that postmodernism signals the end of the self as an individual monad. He specifically sites how modernist conceptions of affect, as illustrated in Munch’s The Scream, are replaced in postmodernism by feelings that have significantly waned and are “free-floating and impersonal?. The postmodern self does not view his life as an unfolding drama of unquestionable importance, as one might find in the modernist works of Camus, but rather experiences life as “series of pure and unrelated presents in time?.

I couldn’t help but notice the extent to which the postmodern aesthetic (we will bracket the larger existential issue for the sake of brevity) has come to dominate the cultural sphere. When Jameson wrote Postmodernism, he employed the greatest examples of the day: Warhol’s shoes, the Bonaventure hotel, etc. Such examples, although illustrative, now seem like modernist exemplars when compared to Apple’s advertisements for the iPod shuffle, which I think is the fullest reification of the postmodern aesthetic to-date. While walking home through Herald Square, and looking up and seeing “Life is Random?, I couldn’t help but think Jameson was right.