Thursday, 12 February 2009

Why Reading Matters (or, Why Susan Greenfield Doesn't)

Tonight's iPlayer-based dinner entertainment was "Why Reading Matters", a documentary on BBC Four. This is what the Beeb had to say about it:

"Science writer Rita Carter tells the story of how modern neuroscience has revealed that reading, something most of us take for granted, unlocks remarkable powers. Carter explains how the classic novel Wuthering Heights allows us to step inside other minds and understand the world from different points of view, and she wonders whether the new digital revolution could threaten the values of classic reading."

Eek.. minor alarm bells. No, don't panic, it can't be that bad, I thought. This is the BBC after all, and only this morning I was singing their praises regarding the high quality of their documentaries. Still, I have a defence mechanism picked up from years of reading the Metro over people's shoulders - if I come across a sentence that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place in the Daily Mail, the Bullshit Detector gets turned up to maximum. I was on high alert for balderdash.

The needle started to waggle two minutes in: ".. the Internet, blogs, and videogames - it's a digital revolution that some think challenges the old world of reading". Precisely how do the Internet (undoubtedly meaning the web, which is mainly text) and blogs (entirely text) threaten reading? This was beginning to confirm my suspicions - that the "controversy" had been made up to try and make the programme more interesting. But I stuck with it - sensationalism to hook the idiot viewer at the beginning, I'm sure they can back it up, I'll give them a chance.

So... nearly 50 minutes later and I realise there's been no mention of the Internet yet. It's been vaguely interesting - quite lightweight; I question the value of some of the "research" mentioned, but so far so not-so-bad. 49 minutes in and we're celebrating how reading in the UK still seems as popular as ever - moreso even (quoting stats from 2005). Hurrah for reading! Ah but hang on, the tone's changed: ".. but since the beginning of the 21st century, the spectacular rise of digital technologies like the Internet and videogames have brought a fresh wave of fears in their wake". Had the 21st century not started by 2005? Am I missing something here? Perhaps I'm being too picky. Carry on, science writer Rita Carter. "In the United States - exposed to digital media for longer - " er, no, gonna have to stop you there. In the words of wikipedia, "[citation needed]". In what way has the USA been "exposed to digital media for longer"? That's just silly.

51 minutes in and we are introduced to Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of The Royal Institution - "an outspoken critic of digital media". We get a minute or so of her saying how good books are - fair enough, nothing to disagree with here. Then our voiceover says "there's one aspect of the digital revolution that especially troubles Professor Greenfield - videogames". Ahhh, now I get it. This is really just about games, but for some reason you felt the need to say it was about "the Internet, blogs, and videogames". Which became "the Internet and videogames". Which has now become "videogames". Perhaps in the closing minutes it will become "Grand Theft Auto" in which case I won't mind after all.. let's see..

Greenfield again: ".. videogames .. emphasise the thrill .. as you win the princess or slay the dragon ..".

Now. It's quite difficult for me to express just how utterly, inanely stupid that kind of statement sounds to me. Perhaps this will help:

Me: "Science is evil because scientists spend all their time putting shampoo in rabbits' eyes!"

Scientist: "We don't really do that."

Me: "You do! I saw it in a picture once. At least I think I did. About 6 years ago. In the Daily Mail."

Scientist: "Well that's not a very accurate view-"


I may have got carried away at the end there. But my point remains! To claim all computer games are about winning princesses or slaying dragons is to demonstrate that you haven't seen a computer game, possibly ever. And therefore you really don't have the right to comment. But anyway, we're nearly at the end, it can't get worse, surely?

Our voiceover tells us we've gone to "Gamebase in Piccadilly" which is apparently where gamers go to.. well, play games it would seem. Carter appears at this point to ask probing questions of the various gamers. Gamer #1 is playing some kind of WWII-themed first-person shooter. Carter asks "what's the aim of this game?". Gamer #1: "Just to kill people basically".

Well frankly I give up. If the people I'm trying to defend are going to say things so blatantly stupid, what's the point. *sigh*

Another gamer is asked "do you think its an either/or thing? That you either play videogames or you read books?". As dimwitted as the first gamer he agrees wholeheartedly. "Why do you think that is?". "Cos it's easier to just play a game isn't it?".

Well sorry to ruin the stereotype but I'm a gamer who loves reading. And in fact, when I think of all my gaming friends, I realise that every one of them is a big reader too.

Thankfully Carter admits that her "vox pops" can't represent the majority, and accepts that a lot of online games have a huge cooperative element to them. But unfortunately she then lets Greenfield speak again:

"When you rescue the princess [oh CHRIST this again] you don't care about the princess, the princess is meaningless [..] whereas when you're reading a book you do care, that's why you're reading the book.."

A lot of games require no empathy, I would agree with that. Certainly a lack of engaging story in games is something I constantly lament and hope to have some part in changing, but to suggest that is true of all games is as stupid as suggesting the opposite is true of all books - nobody reads Tom Clancy because of the moving interactions between the characters, people read Tom Clancy because they like guns. This can be applied to a large number of books, I'd suggest almost anything advertised in a train station for instance (more on that in a later blog post!).

Thankfully the programme finished with an interview with Naomi Alderman who rather neatly crosses the divide by being a novelist and a game designer.

I looked up "Susan Greenfield" - The Times and The Independent have both run articles about her theory that computer games will create "a generation of children becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate adult hedonists with tiny attention spans, who can't differentiate between blasting away aliens on screen and happy-slapping grannies". I couldn't help noticing that all the way through both articles she repeatedly advertised her new book, but never once backed up her theory with scientific evidence. And then, oh the irony, I found a BBC article which was basically an advert for her new DS brain-training-alike game. The last site I found listed a few reactions to her book (in which she promised to explain exactly how games were rotting children's minds) which made me feel somewhat less infuriated:

"Greenfield's neural account of personal identity is, despite her claims, profoundly reductive, if not incoherent. As such, it removes the very premise upon which her book is based: that technological advance poses a unique threat to personal identity." - Raymond Tallis, writing in the Times

"The neuroscience never marries up with the complaint, just impressively but speciously adorns it. Which is why Greenfield's speculations, interesting as they are, don't get much further than Tunbridge Wells whimsy." - Jane O'Grady, writing in the Guardian

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