I just finished reading Everything Bad Is Good For You. The author, Steven Johnson, makes a quite-convincing case that today's popular culture and media (video games, television, Internet, movies), rather than being 'cheap pleasures that pale beside the intellectual riches of yesterday,' are much more cognitively complex than what we had available to us just a decade or two ago. If you haven't yet read this book, I highly recommend it. Kottke.org has a short blurb on the book along with a number of excellent links to other resources and commentary.
One of my favorite parts of the book is at the beginning. First Johnson quotes Marshall McLuhan:
The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.
Johnson then hypothesizes what critics might have said if video games preceded books rather than the other way around:
Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the long-standing tradition of game playing - which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements - books are simply a barren string of words on the page.
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him- or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new 'libraries' that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion - you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to 'follow the plot' instead of learning to lead.
As Johnson notes, these new forms of communication, participation, and learning have worth. They're not the vast intellectual wastelands that cultural critics often claim them to be. Reading still has a great deal of value, as Johnson clearly states in other parts of his book, but so do these other forms of media. We might sometimes wish that the subject matter or content matter of these media forms were different - for example, I personally wish that some video games weren't so violent and gory - but the bottom line is that the intellectual complexity of popular media is much greater than before. We would be better served to tap into the affordances of these new media forms rather than criticizing them simply because they're new and different.
I give this one 4 higlighters.