There are few cliches sturdier than the one about TV encouraging "passivity" and "mindlessness." Whether stated simply by a frustrated parent or elaborated upon by a communications theorist, this cliche basically boils down to the idea that it is more of a workout, cognitively speaking, to read print than to watch a screen.
An interesting challenge to this idea can be found in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, in which Steven Johnson argues that today's most popular and sophisticated TV shows have a much more complex and demanding structure than the leading shows of just a few years ago.
The truth of this will be driven home if you've ever watched "The Sopranos" or "The West Wing" with an octogenerian: the multiple plots, the references to previous episodes, the use of dialogue not as meaning but as "texture," the withholding of detail to tease the viewer - such devices only confuse people whose viewing experience was shaped by the regular pace and clear exposition of programs like "Gunsmoke" and "Perry Mason."
This stuff is fascinating, and I agree with Mr. Johnson that it refutes the cliche about "passivity." But I disagree with his conclusion that newfangled TV "makes us smarter." For one thing, as he notes, many of these devices come from soap opera, a genre known to be addictive but not especially educative.
For another, the skills involved - observing a large number of people, keeping track of their doings, basically getting the goods on them - are ancient and universal (another name for them is "gossip," or perhaps, "politics"). And while these skills are vital to success in any age, they do not add up to what is currently defined as "smart." In the higher reaches of the professions and the workplace generally, "smart" still refers to what is learned in school. And, like it or not, at home - when the TV is turned off.
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