Thursday, September 07, 2006

Everything bad is good for you.

I've just been reading the hot pink edition (seriously, it glows) of Everything Bad Is Good for You. The Grauniad wasn't impressed at all but I think they missed the point.

I guess that's because I realised what Johnson meant by "smarter". He was talking about what's called systems or associative thinking. This is the skill that enables us to keep track of a huge web of social relationships in a sitcom, to be able to follow numerous interweaving subplots in a detective drama, to intuitively recognise alien attack patterns in computer games or be able to navigate webpages where linear text is interspersed with hyperlinks. Associative/systems thinking analyses the rules of a system as a function of its interconnections rather than separating all the parts and analysing each in turn. Systems thinking can include intuitive pattern recognition or drawing relationships between apparently unconnected concepts where the system is 'the life, the universe and everything'. System thinking depends on interconnections and is therefore non-linear. It's also the skill used in Raven's Progressive Matrices tests (which Johnson mentions in the book) - used to avoid cultural biasing in IQ tests.

New media mediums such as the internet, computer games and film are primarily visual and visual mediums are a non-linear way of communicating information. This is why the question "What happens at the beginning of the Mona Lisa?" is meaningless. This differs from 'book' intelligence which is the ability to either create or follow a linearly developed argument, often presented verbally. Hence, the question "What happens at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice?" makes perfect sense. Johnson explains that in order to present a sequentially structured proposition, the best medium remains the book.

Johnson has hit on an interesting point but the limited size of his book means he doesn't explore its wider significance. The whole issue of 'dumbing down' arises from western society's privileging of 'book' intelligence over systems thinking, which means that being good at Tetris or being able to navigate a game world is not regarded as a manifestation of intelligence. It's not all bad - Go is regarded as an 'intelligence' game and requires intuitive pattern recognition, but it's not as popular in the west as chess which tends to be more sequential; you can describe play using a sequence of moves. This is why computers can beat us at chess but not at Go. It is only very recently that people have started writing about the importance of a systems approach at all, and this has often been a bit controversial or cranky . Systems thinking has become increasingly well-regarded since discussions of climate change and sustainability have tended to take an earth systems approach; like The Natural Step. And people have seized on methods of associative thinking like mind mapping as a means of thinking around a problem (the diagrams in Johnson's book show how relationships between people in 24 and modern detective plots are better summarised by a mind map than an description).

But a fair bit of educational attainment is still focused on the ability to construct a linear argument. This is the skill tested by essay writing. Scientific writing also assumes a reductionalist approach to problems in which progress is made through a series of sequential, linear steps. Since progress is rarely made in this fashion - most of the work of scientific writing tends to be in forcing non-linear relationships into a linear argument. Great works of literature are usually regarded as 'great' due to the quality or wit of their writing, rather than the complexity or imagination of the story. The former is verbal and linear, the latter is associative. A 100 % associative thinker wouldn't understand why Booker Prize winners are regarded as 'better' literature than, say, Sabriel.

The focus on linear thinking is understandable since without computers or TVs to communicate complex ideas visually, the only way of testing intelligence was to test people's ability to communicate verbally. Unfortunately, it discriminates quite badly against associative/systems thinkers who have difficulty compacting their maps of relationships between things into a sequential narrative. Not being able to communicate linearly is indistinguishable from not having a clue; the difference is that associative thinkers can communicate their ideas perfectly on a poster or Powerpoint. Further, associative thinkers often cannot explain the explicit rules of a system. They just 'know' how it works. Johnson discusses this with relation to simple computer games like Pacman where players could guess the repetitive patterns generated in the programming and so consistently get high scores in the game. However, in an intellectual climate in which reason is defined as a plodding step-by-step progression you can't just 'know' that ghosts walk three times left and four times right. You've got to explain the reasoned steps you took to reach that conclusion and the exact nature of the rule. Good associative thinkers work backwards; they find the answer and figure out all the steps to get there afterwards.

Penalising associative thinking actually a bit crazy in the 21st century because it is the most creative way of thinking about problems. A 100 % linear thinker, the person who could write a perfect essay could not produce truly creative or visionary work because they could not make new and interesting associations between apparently unconnected ideas. They could only synthesise existing ideas or work through a series of steps to examine a problem and solve it by referring to work relating to that problem. Real visionary thinking requires a 'web' world view in which everything is linked together in a vast tangle, a global mind map - ouboros are linked to benzene, and so on. That's not to say a 100 % linear thinker couldn't do original work but they would not be the person who caused a Kuhnian paradigm shifts; they would do the 'normal' work between shifts when it is sufficient to draw upon a local body of standard practice.

So perhaps Johnson is wrong about the cultural renaissance. Maybe it will come when visual, non-linear media become so prevalent and powerful that they can be used to conceptualise the most difficult problems. It will be then that linear narrative will seem a clumsy way of communicating richness and complexity, and associative thinkers will inherit the earth.


  • At 9:56 am , Blogger David said...

    Non-linear plotting and dislocated time plotting have been on a steep rise within the even most traditional media for 20 years. Coincidental to the growth of computer gamings? Possibly, but there is no doubt that exposure to entertainment media that fit associative thinking better than pure linear, descriptive plotting has had a profound impact on what an audience can take from work like 24.

  • At 10:24 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    I think it's a broader societal trend.

    We've had widespread personal computer use from 1980s and personal computers with graphical user intefaces (GUIs) from late 1980s (Windows 1.0 was launched in 1985). GUIs encourage associative thinking as much as computer games. All these things interact together - people are more used to non-linearity so they demand programs with non-linear plots.

    As people keep complaining in the Grauniad (WRT raunch culture, skinny celebs, etc.) we now live in a visual, image-based culture. Unfortunately, the media always focuses on the bad side of this and dismisses it as superficial or shallow. This may be because a lot of cultural commentators have a linear thinking style (because they have to pass essays at school; some postmodernist ideas wouldn't last 5 minutes otherwise, e.g. culture cannot influence the thought of systems thinkers through language/literary text because non-linear thinking is often visual and visual thinking can conceive of things that cannot be expressed in words.

  • At 11:26 am , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    "...the rules of a system as a function of its interconnections..."

    Can you give me an example of a rule as a function of interconnections?

    Systems thinking seems here to be mostly defined by what it isn't, namely a straw man of linear thinking.

    Not being able to explain why you think something, seems to me to be probably because you don't know why. So is systems thinking just intuition? Nothing wrong with intuition of course, and it is essential in most fields, including science. So let's not try to hide it by calling it something else and propping it up with verbiage.

    Computers can beat us at chess but not Go, because Go has more possible moves, so the number of possible positions to check blows up much faster in Go. And the chessboard is a system, it is all about interconnections, etc. But the chess player and the Go player will be able to explain why they think a particular move is a good one.

    And it makes me nervous when people say x thinkers do this, y thinkers do that. There's a hint of irreconcilability about it, of relativism. I would like to approach a problem in the best way for that problem. I don't want to be told that I have the wrong sort of brain and need to consult somebody who intuits the answers and cannot justify them (a priest, perhaps).

    Don't get me started on Kuhn. But it is ironic that his name is attached to the "Kuhnian paradigm shift". It is better attached to "Kuhnian normal science" jobsworth science - that is what his philosophy dealt with. Interesting science, real science, he seems to have little understanding of.

  • At 12:15 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    It is like intuition. You can examine stuff in a not very systematic fashion and then just suddenly 'know' something. Take an example. I had real problems understanding the functioning of an instrument I'm using in my PhD. I went to sleep and I dreamt I was standing underneath the instrument and as it flew over my head I could see inside it and I understood. But if I wanted to explain that to you, I'd have to sit down and find a 'start' to my vision and then proceed laboriously step-by-step to try to explain every bit. The method of understanding/logic/communication that is expected is that I understood the functioning step-by-step, not that I dreamt it fully realised.

    I agree, if I just said 'I know it works that way - trust me on this' you'd have a right to complain. But you could imagine in the future that I could just use a complex version of some existing image manipulation software to show a 3D model of that system functioning. This would be far easier for me to explain to you than having to figure out what bit goes where and write a long step-by-step process that just didn't exist in my understanding. I didn't reason it out consciously. It just 'happened'.

    This is what I mean about understanding the rules of the system as a function of its interconnections. I don't understand the system as a result of taking it to bits and looking how each bit works. I understand it as a system - as a working whole. In order to get a rule set out of that, I'd have to give it a lot of thought to compact something non-linear into a linear set of instructions for the working of an instrument.

    So in the 'Go' example, I can decide to make move before I know why it's a good move. But if you asked me, I could then explain why it was a good move. I personally find chess harder than go because it's about moving one piece and then another piece in a sequence to get into check whereas with Go I can just look at the board, see a pattern and develop it. A friend with a similar skillset (whose very good at chess) tells me that if you've played chess a lot you can instantly see patterns in chess like in go. It's just easier with Go because pieces don't move anywhere once they're down - they're just a pattern in space.

  • At 11:31 pm , Anonymous phil said...

    A 100 % linear thinker, the person who could write a perfect essay could not produce truly creative or visionary work because they could not make new and interesting associations between apparently unconnected ideas.

    I do agree with Joe that this tends to be a straw man, and that "inspiration" is in practice inseparable from a background of knowing your stuff very thoroughly. The reaction against "normal science", which Kuhn is part of, enjoys romantic pictures like that of Einstein struggling hopelessly at school and university before suddenly having a miraculous 1995. But in fact he was far from a written-off failure before that.

    I don't have the quote to hand, but Popper (supposedly Kuhn's arch-enemy) sketched a model of one's ideas being generated in a somewhat indeterminate way and then falsified or corroborated through more rigourous mental investigation. That blend of "styles" seems closer to reality than the dichotomy of "linear" and "associative". And I think this is like your "Go" example, but would dispute the assumption that there are millions of people plodding away in an utterly distinct and purely "linear" style.


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