Commentary
12:48 am
Sun October 5, 2008

My Bluetooth

Murray, KY – Hey, Dad, prompted my daughter, start your Bluetooth and I'll give you some new ring tones.
I don't know how to do that, I replied, sheepishly.
It's true, I admit it: I don't know how to work the Bluetooth feature of my cell phone.

Cell phones and their ilk are the epitome of our popular culture. Most people believe that this thing we call popular culture is bad for us, a drag on our intellects, an erosion of our values, an uber-waste of our time (to use a locution my daughter favors). Though there seems to be plenty to wring our age-spotted hands about, it is apparent that we can either embrace the latest newfangledness, or attempt to hold ourselves back from it, standing atop a mountain of moral superiority, condemning the things we say we don't like, or simply haven't managed to encompass (like Bluetooth communications). For me, the line in the sand has been text messaging something I just don't want to do. Many people, especially many young people, are amazingly adept as speed demons of texting, and they look at my habit of email and say, oh, yeah, that's what old people use. Anyone else feeling disoriented about that?

We don't hear it said, but aren't we all just a little envious of those youthful technophiles. Is it possible that they have an advantage over us? Yes. No doubt. It is entirely possible that in some ways they are actually smarter than us, who are the standard bearers of the last next-best generation. You could be an ancient nineteen years old, and missing out on what the cool youth culture is doing! The idea that the kids may be smarter than us is the contrarian contention of Steven Johnson. Not only does he believe that we collectively are getting smarter, but he credits the worst of our public pabulum as responsible for this improvement. Television is held in contempt by nearly everyone, but could it possibly be helping make us smarter? Johnson's 2005 book, Everything Bad is Good for You, makes this case, and if not absolutely so, at least convincingly. The book is subtitled, How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, and in 254 paperback bound pages he offers a serious challenge to the doomsayers who bewail the shocking contexts of today: television, the internet, and computer gaming.

Johnson refers to studies that indicate our IQs have been rising, up an encouraging 13.8 points in the last forty-nine years. James Flynn, in attempting to debunk studies that tried to show racial imbalance, found that the examiners had been ratcheting up the level of IQ-test question difficulty, in order to maintain a regular 100 point normal intelligence score. But when such skewing is subtracted, we see a wholly counterintuitive truth: we've been getting smarter! Who'd a thunk it?

And the improvements he tracks aren't just in IQ, but also in emotional intelligence the ability to read social situations, and in the mental wiring that makes the eight year old in the room the best person to reprogram the remote control. Johnson presents evidence that proves that the television shows and movies of today are more complex and sophisticated than they were in previous decades. Compare an episode of Dallas to one from The West Wing or 24 and you will have to agree that Johnson is right.

The same holds true for technology. Are you blithe about downloading to your I-Pod? Do you face a new computer game with buoyant expectation? What kept me from continuing with my 30th level Troll Hunter in the wildly addictive and popular online game WoW (World of Warcraft) was that to advance further, I really had to start joining parties of online players in scenarios aptly called instants, and that these strangers would all be youth culture savants who knew all the lingo and could operate their character avatars with great skill while instant messaging each other with careless ease. I would have been instantly' branded as a newb, and been picked on by eight year olds operating the equivalent of ridiculously muscled beach bullies that would kick sand in my face and steal my lunch treasure.

Though as I mentioned it is common to wax anxious over the new trends and strange habits of this youth culture phenomenon, it is also possible to see amazing and admirable qualities emerging. Johnson says they will be past masters at social networking, will not flinch at new challenges, and will be geniuses at problem solving. Rather than casting sour glances and making snide comments at these struggling beneficiaries of popular culture, I plan to be nice to them. Maybe they will take pity on me and show me how to operate my cell phone's Bluetooth features.

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