But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all. I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. (snip)This reminds me of a something my friend did with his teenage son when the son wanted to watch a movie his father found objectionable. The son argued the show was good despite a few bad parts. The son believed that the good outweighed the bad. The wise father was not swayed with this argument. Instead, the following day he baked a pan of brownies for his son. Just as the son was about to bite into the delicious morsel the dad informed him that along with all the delicious chocolate and sugar he also mixed in a small portion of the doo doo from their golden retriever. The son quickly lost his appetitie for the brownie. But the dad assured him that there was just a little bit and the rest of the ingredients were very nutritious and outweighed the small portion that the dog contributed. The son quickly got the point.
The rest of the New Yorker goes on to point out all the "nutritional beneifts" of these TV shows. Don't bother reading it. It doesn't say a whole lot but the conclusion was insightful.
In pointing out some of the ways that popular culture has improved our minds, I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves. What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind.I think I might just send Mr. Johnson and pan of freshly baked brownies. By his standards they should be very nutritional don't you think.
(For my views on TV see Don't Control the Remote.. .)
P.S. Edwonk has posted that a school district is encouraging children to turn off the TV. In light of this article I wonder if they are rethinking their strategy.