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Thread: Are the masses getting better at systems thinking?

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    Are the masses getting better at systems thinking?

    So I just finished reading Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Johnson.

    His thesis is that, as pop culture becomes increasingly complex, the average consumers/participants are getting more adept at particular types of intelligence. First he shows that pop culture has indeed gotten immensely more complex (just think about current hit TV shows, video games, and the internet itself vs 30 years ago) and lays out the reasons why (financial rewards for repeat viewing; problem solving is innately enjoyable). He then gives some evidence that this has had a measurable effect on intelligence - specifically the Flynn effect in IQ scores.

    Johnson acknowledges that pop culture can't teach everything - he's very specific in his argument and in favor of moderation in all things. The implications are still quite intriguing - people in general are being trained to develop skills in keeping track of complex systems and problem solving. In other words, convoluted TV plots and video games are training average consumers to think more like INTPs.

    So I wonder - what do y'all think? On the face of it, does this hold water?

    If it is true, why are our math scores still so low? Shouldn't video game problem solving carry over? Or is that a different sort of thinking?

    Say it's really really true, and the middle of the bell curve really is getting better at conceptualizing complex systems - what does this suggest for our culture? I immediately think of participatory democracy - that the technology and the average systems-intelligent mindset could match to form a very efficient and equitable form of governance, at least compared with anything we have today.

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    Member HilbertSpace's Avatar
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    Not having read the book, my biggest curiosity would be of the author identified a metric for complexity in entertainment that wasn't going to threaten confirmation bias. An example might be the Flesch score applied to dialogue from the top ten primetime shows as a moving average since the 50s. You'd still have to look in into the causality part of it, of course, and it's certainly not the best metric, but it's reasonably objective.

    If it were to be true, no matter the cause, I'd think it would be a very positive sign, as long as the gains were equitable. For example, if one of the main drivers for an increase in IQ is nutrition, we can expect larger gains among lower SES classes and developing nations, relative to developed ones. I'd take that as very positive if it can begin to reduce social and economic inequalities.

    My concern would be if the gains were not progressive - if they were instead distributed such that they primarily benefited already privileged groups, creating what would be a bimodal distribution in IQ along national, racial, or class lines. I know by definition IQ is normally distributed, but I'm talking about a reinforcement of existing differences. If it is pop culture, for example, but pop culture is segregated, I can see an argument that inequalities are bound to increase.

    So, I guess my response would be a qualified "Yay!" subject to confirmation and characterization.

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HilbertSpace View Post
    Not having read the book, my biggest curiosity would be of the author identified a metric for complexity in entertainment that wasn't going to threaten confirmation bias. An example might be the Flesch score applied to dialogue from the top ten primetime shows as a moving average since the 50s. You'd still have to look in into the causality part of it, of course, and it's certainly not the best metric, but it's reasonably objective.
    He looked at a few different genres, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. With TV, he examined the number of concurrent plotlines and relationships that the audience needs to keep track of. Most convincingly, he examined both "midbrow" (dramas like The Sopranos and 24) and "lowbrow" culture (reality show contests like Big Brother or The Apprentice) vs their 70s counterparts. Video games, he compared the likes of SimCity and Grand Theft Auto to tetris, pacman, and mail order baseball simulation games. Not a comprehensive scientific study by any means, but more objective than pure anecdote and opinion. [/quote]

    If it were to be true, no matter the cause, I'd think it would be a very positive sign, as long as the gains were equitable. For example, if one of the main drivers for an increase in IQ is nutrition, we can expect larger gains among lower SES classes and developing nations, relative to developed ones. I'd take that as very positive if it can begin to reduce social and economic inequalities.

    My concern would be if the gains were not progressive - if they were instead distributed such that they primarily benefited already privileged groups, creating what would be a bimodal distribution in IQ along national, racial, or class lines. I know by definition IQ is normally distributed, but I'm talking about a reinforcement of existing differences. If it is pop culture, for example, but pop culture is segregated, I can see an argument that inequalities are bound to increase.
    He mainly cited the Flynn Effect... which is less straightforward than he made it sound. Hmm.

    But still, from wikipedia:

    Some studies have found the gains of the Flynn effect to be particularly concentrated at the lower end of the distribution. Teasdale and Owen (1989), for example, found the effect primarily reduced the number of low-end scores, resulting in an increased number of moderately high scores, with no increase in very high scores.[9] In another study, two large samples of Spanish children were assessed with a 30-year gap. Comparison of the IQ distributions indicated that the mean IQ-scores on the test had increased by 9.7 points (the Flynn effect), the gains were concentrated in the lower half of the distribution and negligible in the top half, and the gains gradually decreased as the IQ of the individuals increased.[10] Some studies have found a reverse Flynn effect with declining scores for those with high IQ.[11]
    I guess the biggest issue here is the old correlation vs causation. Yes, popular culture has become more complex. Yes, IQ scores - particularly the lower scores - have been increasing. However, that doesn't mean that the two are at all related. The wikipedia article on the Flynn effect (= scientific consensus..? suuure...) gives much more space to nutrition than to education or culture in general.

    Another thing that I wonder about, regarding video games - does the game's reward system train you to solve real world problems, or does it train you to replace intangible real life rewards with more obvious and apparent virtual rewards? Although I suppose that that comes down to whether or not the user has an unhealthy addiction. The same can said of anything "escapist."

    The book is 10 years old now, so I wonder if there has actually been more research into the effects of the complexities of pop culture on mental development.

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums...ar_culture.htm

    This is a discussion in 2005 between Steven Johnson and pop culture academic (official title) Jason Mittel. It goes over portions of the argument and incorporates some criticism.

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    Member HilbertSpace's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    He looked at a few different genres, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. With TV, he examined the number of concurrent plotlines and relationships that the audience needs to keep track of. Most convincingly, he examined both "midbrow" (dramas like The Sopranos and 24) and "lowbrow" culture (reality show contests like Big Brother or The Apprentice) vs their 70s counterparts. Video games, he compared the likes of SimCity and Grand Theft Auto to tetris, pacman, and mail order baseball simulation games. Not a comprehensive scientific study by any means, but more objective than pure anecdote and opinion.
    I would still want to look more closely at his methodology - very much how he chooses which shows to rate, and how he rates them. I'd be a little less apt to buy the argument without caveats if they're selected shows without an objective criteria (e.g., Top 10 based on ratings per year), and if he's doing some kind of hand-coding on things like number of plot lines. Is there some kind of weighting involved?

    It'd also be interesting to see if the trend was replicated both historically (pre-TV) and across media (books, radio). Things like video games are additionally problematic because of technical progress, but if you can control for that, you'd still have to make sure that your selection criteria didn't make it look like you were cherry-picking. For example, I think you'd have a problem citing Skyrim as being hugely indicative if Angry Birds is the most popular video game.

    He mainly cited the Flynn Effect... which is less straightforward than he made it sound. Hmm.

    But still, from wikipedia:



    I guess the biggest issue here is the old correlation vs causation. Yes, popular culture has become more complex. Yes, IQ scores - particularly the lower scores - have been increasing. However, that doesn't mean that the two are at all related. The wikipedia article on the Flynn effect (= scientific consensus..? suuure...) gives much more space to nutrition than to education or culture in general.

    Another thing that I wonder about, regarding video games - does the game's reward system train you to solve real world problems, or does it train you to replace intangible real life rewards with more obvious and apparent virtual rewards? Although I suppose that that comes down to whether or not the user has an unhealthy addiction. The same can said of anything "escapist."

    The book is 10 years old now, so I wonder if there has actually been more research into the effects of the complexities of pop culture on mental development.
    I do think that there's significant support for the nutrition component. That's not to say that there aren't additional, perhaps synergistic elements in things like popular culture. Nutrition, as I alluded to, would support that there'd be higher gains on the lower ends (most ground to be made up as nutrition is equalized).

    What I'd want to see is something like "The Flesch score of the top 10 most popular television shows in the US has increased monotonically over the past five decades. This corresponds to a monotonic increase in IQ over the same period." There's still causality, but it's a start.

    I also took a look at the MIT session. I think exchanges like this serve to question the validity of his interpretation, but the point doesn't get raised:
    HENRY JENKINS, director of Comparative Media Studies: In reaction to Lost, other networks are producing shows like Reunion and Prison Break that try to mirror its complex format, but seem to have only a single-season shelf-life. Do you feel that there's a tension between the need to grow a complex narrative and the need to write a narrative that won't decisively end in one season?

    MITTELL: American television is unique in that a show's success can be measured in terms of how long it stays on the air. British series, for example, are scheduled for short runs that end regardless of their commercial success. American TV shows stretch out as long as the show is commercially viable, leading to situations like The X-Files, where the show ran out of story and then ran out of stars, but remained on the air anyway.

    JOHNSON: I've never understood networks' eagerness to cancel shows they've already paid for. If a show has been filmed for one season, and the storyline will take one season to complete, why yank it after two episodes, given that many long-running shows began with poor ratings? Hopefully the new DVD market and video-on-demand will change the market mechanics and guarantee new shows a season to develop.
    I don't see how you can make the argument he's making, and then stipulate that some sort of niche-creation is necessary to maintain complex shows.

    That interview did make me interested to hear what he thinks about reality TV, though.

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