Television Not So Dumb As Television Tells Us To Think It Is

posted Apr 25, 2005

This article explores a trend I had noticed lately, but had not noticed how pervasive it is. Much prime time television has become phenomenally complicated, to its great benefit. My wife and I both enjoy Alias and CSI (only the original, not the spinoffs), and we are frequently asking each other what something means, because if you so much as get up to get a drink, you'll miss something, something that might change the course of the entire episode.

I can also say this is not confined to television; I don't read enough books in general to know whether this is happening across all genres, but a Hugo winning science fiction story of today is likely to be significantly more complicated structurally than a Hugo winner of the 1960s. The excellent A Deepness in the Sky, the 2000 Hugo Award winner by Vernor Vinge, tracks, off the top of my head, at least 8 characters consistently through the book, with frequent visits to minor characters as needed. (For reference for those who may wish to check that, I'm counting: Thomas, Qiwi, Pham Nuwen, Ezra, Sherkaner Underhill, Victory Underhill, their children (considered as one), and Hrunkner.) The Gripping Hand, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell, ships with a Dramatis Personae consisting of about 40 characters; the POV tracks at least 4 or 5 people. Compare this with, say, the classic Foundation series (before Foundation's Edge), where each story has one main character, and a supporting cast of perhaps five people overall.

Is this a good thing? Probably. Especially in the book format I don't think this necessarily contributes to scatterbrain-edness, which isn't a word but will have to do. But it would be interesting to see how modern people do with concentration vs. the people of fifty years ago, and I will be intrigued to see how it plays out in my profession over the next few years.

The article at the end also touches one of my Pet Educational Theories: Learning how to deal with this sort of cognitive complexity is something very valuable and we ought to consider it as we choose our entertainment sources. There are worse things to do with school time than introduce the children to a protracted game of Civilization, vying only with SimCity for the title of Ultimate Resource Management Game. (There are many other empire-building games, but most of them focus on the fighting, not the building. A good Civ player can literally defeat his opponents by out-building them, just like in the real world.)

 

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