Thursday, November 17, 2005

Increasing complexity of pop culture

Science popularizer Steven Johnson makes several interesting claims in his 2005 book, "Everything Bad is Good for You."

Johnson makes a convincing case that pop culture, mainly TV and video games, have been getting increasingly complex in the last 30 years. An important distinction is not that the content is getting more complex (its not, content still generally panders to the lowest common denominator tendencies of fear, sex, violence, etc.) but rather that the format has been evolving - more thought is required to experience culture today than in the past.

TV has many more characters, story lines, social relationships (together called multi-threading) to track across episodes and unstated aspects that the viewer must fill in vs. being spoon-fed as in the Dragnet or Dallas of the 1970s where episodes were obvious and self-contained. The viewer must also filter, determining that specialized over-jargon (e.g.; as on the show ER) is not fully relevant to the plot.

Video games, Johnson asserts, require the use of higher cognition; applying probability theory, systems analysis, pattern recognition and nested problem solving. Video and other types of games are much more engaging than story/narrative because the viewer/user is the actor/experiencer, because strategy is the theme and because there are constant rewards (feedback we lack in our daily lives). There is sometimes little distinction between playing and watching a game (some brain scans have shown nearly identical activity for one viewing sports as opposed to playing sports; audience engagement can be a projection of self). Viewers put themselves in the position of the observed in video games, sports and reality TV, tracing strategies and how they would act and assessing the actions of others.

Johnson's analysis seems sound even when moving up to a broader level than was considered in the book. Evolutionary biologists, Steven Pinker and others, have long pointed out the importance of culture as one of the key aspects that separates humans from apes and it is obvious that culture evolves and has a strong impact on humans.

In the memetic context, evolving culture, and accelerating evolution of culture also make sense. Biology is hopelessly slow to evolve (in the heretofore known natural context), but culture, as some sort of proxy for human evolution and as an undivorceable aspect of human evolution is much more quickly evolvable. Lest we forget, culture is comprised of memes....which are capable of extremely quick and complexifying evolution.


Michael Anissimov said...

Hi Melanie - just came across your blog. Good stuff! Decent blogs are hard to come by. I'll be checking out your archives. BTW, where do you hang out in SL? I had a two-week stint with SL but got tired of looking at gothic sex shops. ;)

LaBlogga said...

Hi Michael, Thanks for the comment. I usually go to Discussions and Arts & Culture events in SL, but don't have a specific hang-out. SL is a bit underwhelming as an intellectual, transhumanist & singulatarian venue at the moment. The singularity discussions I have been to in SL are mainly explaining to newbies what a technical singularity is. I have been following your SIAI work with interest.