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.