The Null Device

2005/5/9

Scores in general intelligence tests have been steadily rising for some decades; so much so that tests have to be replaced with new, harder ones every decade. Some claim that this is due to a more cognitively demanding environment, with things such as television programmes, badly-designed user interfaces and especially video games exercising the mental faculties responsible for problem-solving tasks of the sort covered by IQ tests:

Over the last 50 years, we've had to cope with an explosion of media, technologies, and interfaces, from the TV clicker to the World Wide Web. And every new form of visual media - interactive visual media in particular - poses an implicit challenge to our brains: We have to work through the logic of the new interface, follow clues, sense relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the very skills that the Ravens tests measure - you survey a field of visual icons and look for unusual patterns.
The best example of brain-boosting media may be videogames. Mastering visual puzzles is the whole point of the exercise - whether it's the spatial geometry of Tetris, the engineering riddles of Myst, or the urban mapping of Grand Theft Auto.

The message there is that things derided as stultifying, such as TV programmes and computer games, actually make you smarter; in contrast, locking yourself in a room and reading the classics instead, as wise authorities would recommend, will cause these cognitive skills to atrophy.

Of course, human neural capacity hasn't been increasing steadily over the past century; our brains are roughly the same same size as those of our great grandparents were, and made of the same kinds of neurons and synapses. As such, it'd be a matter of give and take. As some skills increase, pushed on by new technologies, others atrophy, and conservatives decry the mind-rotting effect of new technologies. This is not a new phenomenon; when writing was invented, there surely were grumpy pundits decrying the inevitable decline of epic-poem memorisation skills (and I doubt whether anyone today, with the possible exception of certain autistic savants, would not appear hopelessly stupid to the ancients by such criteria were they sent back in time); ditto the decline of mental arithmetic skills with the advent of calculators. (Some among you will remember debates on whether giving schoolchildren calculators will harm their mathematical skills.) And, of course, agriculture and the city lifestyle has just about killed wilderness survival skills for any but professional experts trained in these.

Anyway, back to the point in question. One thing I would expect to emerge is improved skills at dealing with an information-rich environment, such as abstract problem-solving and multitasking skills. The other side of the coin would be shortened attention spans; as compulsive multitaskers constantly bombarded with multiple flows of information, we don't need the ability to patiently focus on one thing as our ancestors did, and so it has atrophied. (I once read that one of the reasons that Hollywood remakes so many old films, other than marketing with new casts/soundtracks/gimmicks, is that a lot of people these days find the original films too slow-paced and boring.)

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In Australia, taping TV programmes or ripping MP3s from purchased CDs is technically a criminal offense. Australia recently harmonised its intellectual-property laws with the United States, though without adopting the Fair Use doctrine which protects such activities; as such, Australia currently has some of the world's most draconian copyright laws. The government has issued a discussion paper on adopting fair use/fair dealing exemptions, and is soliciting comments. The possibilities include anything from US-style fair use to the right to circumvent DRM in limited circumstances (as some countries have). Keep in mind that there will be a lot of pressure from Big Copyright on the government to have no or minimal fair-use provisions, to maximise their profits (after all, if you cannot legally rip your CDs to your iPod, you're forced to buy or rent a separate (DRM-locked) copy of anything you wish to listen to on it or face the possibility of prosecution). If the government doesn't hear much demand for fair use, it might acquiesce to its corporate stakeholders' demands. As such, if you live in Australia, it is in your interest to make your opinion heard. Speak up before there are MIPI officers with handheld scanning devices patrolling public areas, doing on-the-spot copyright audits of MP3 players and issuing four-figure fines.

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