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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Vive La France? All of continental Europe slipping

The riots in France are certainly a challenge but a problem that can be fixed. After two weeks of the continuing unrest, it is clear that this is the next and more intense level of immigration friction in Europe (Netherlands and Germany, and France previously have already had displays). While the friction is more than a surface problem, it is tangible and solvable, not necessarily easily, but it is clear that the French need to economically integrate immigrants into the national economy.

Recent tax legislation in Germany is a much larger problem because the instigators are the government leaders and they do not see that their actions are driving exactly the opposite of progress. The incoming German coalition government has been proposing and passing a variety of new taxation measures, the most prominent of which is a sales tax/VAT increase of 3% to 19% due to start in 2007. Greater income tax rates are also to be imposed. With stronger twin handcuffs on income generation and consumption, there is little economic incentive for anyone to do other than succumb to the ever-dwindling social programs of the state. Everything about these tax increases is the opposite of sponsoring incentive, ingenuity, innovation and progress and retards any hope continental Europe may have had in modernizing.

In addition to inadequate immigrant integration and Germany's new tax legislation, continental Europe is not making broad political and economic reforms and has not made the transition to the service economy that dominates the vanguard of the world's successful and evolving economies. Europe no longer has a competitive basis for manufacturing, only an historical precedent. With continent-centric short-term leadership myopia, there is a real concern that Europe will not be able to make the meaningful political and economic reforms necessary to move forward and is slipping dramatically on the stage of world competitiveness and influence.