Technological Advances and the Death of Imagination

Sometimes the books that I inadvertently connect to each other. This often has the side effect of spurring interesting thought processes on my part.1

I knew when I read Neal Stephenson’s
Reamde and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One back to back2 there was a chance that this might happen. Two books which both feature an immersive, global MMORPG3? Sure, there might be a little overlap. However, the brain gears didn’t really start to turn until I started reading Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.

Granted, I am not even halfway through Kaku’s book, but I have already had some interesting and disturbing thoughts pop into my head.

Let me explain
5 where this is all coming from.

Reamde is a thriller involving a number of fascinating characters, some of whom are connected by the MMORPG T’Rain. Players all over the world log in to this adventure game. When a virus in the game affects a normal criminal financial transaction, it puts into motion all kinds of insanity.

Ready Player One, a game designer obsessed with the 1980s wills his entire fortune including control over the immersive universe which most of the globe uses every day to the first person to solve his quest and find the Easter Egg he has hidden. Unlike Reamde, Ready Player One takes place a good half a century in the future. People do not log in via laptops but by using haptic rigs which project the scenery directly on to the eyes of the user while special gloves (or if you are wealthy enough suits) provide tactile feedback as you move through the virtual world.

The section of
The Future of the Mind which I just finished digesting discusses the creation of exactly the type of technology discussed in these two works of science fiction. While it is not available yet, it is perhaps not as far off as your average science fiction consumer would believe.

So, what does any of this have to do with the title of this post?

It all has to do with reading, and specifically how far away from it we seem to be getting.

Last weekend I worked the
GLAHW table at the Great Lakes Comic Con.8 One thing which I heard a number of times went something like this:

I don’t have the time/concentration/memory to read long books. That’s why I like comics/graphic novels/short stories.9

Granted, some of this may have been sampling error. One would expect to find people who prefer the medium of sequential art and short fiction at a convention which is focused on those exact things. Still, I found the statement more than a little frightening. In the last week I have seen no fewer than three articles discussing the death of long form fiction and the inability of modern people to focus on novels pop up on the NSA information gathering device (Facebook). Many of these pointed to movies, television, video games, and the internet as leading causes for this alleged phenomenon. Others discussed a lack of free time, equating the reading of a novel with a grand expenditure of time. Most mentioned the prevalence of hand held technology, positing that constant connectivity and short attention span games like Flappy Bird
10 as pushing reading to the side.11

There may or may not be merit to any or all of these arguments. What has been bothering me lately is the way technologies such as these could serve to strip away our ability to use our imaginations. My concern is with what I will call the difference between passive and active mental entertainment.

Movies, television, and to a lesser extent video games, represent the more passive end of the entertainment spectrum. When you are watching events unfold on the screen, your mind does not have to work that hard. Yes, you can experience any number of emotions
12/13. You may even experience physical reactions to what you are watching such as elevated heart rates, tensing of the muscles, etc. However, your mind does not have to do a whole lot.

This may vary with genre. One of the great aspects of watching a mystery is trying to figure out the “whodunnit.” Viewers may identify with the trapped character of an adventure film and try to figure out how they might escape from a similar situation. These and similar examples aside, the act of watching a movie or television program is akin to being led by the hand. Someone else has already figured everything out and you just have to follow along. The program tells you everything you need to know, right down to how the characters look and sound.

Reading, on the other hand, requires a more intensive use of the imagination. Readers take the words that they are given and use them to create mental pictures of the characters, the setting, the sounds and smells…
14. They are still led around by the author, but readers’ minds do more.

I place video games somewhere in the middle ground between these two extremes. While players do not have the onus of imagining what their worlds look like, they do perform more mental activities than the more passive movie viewer. They have to choose actions, react to what the see on the screen or hear from the speakers. They also have to do a more thorough job of identifying with the main character of the game.

Ready Player One and The Future of the Mind discuss the possibility of more complete immersive entertainment experiences. One of the games in Cline’s book involves the character acting as if in a movie. He has to recite the dialog at the correct time, with the correct inflection. While this would appear to require more mental activity, it is a different type of activity. Someone using this type of technology would not be imagining a new world, they would be remembering a world that they had already experienced.

What would happen to us as a society if we were to gradually lose the ability to fully use our imaginations? There is already a huge discussion regarding the use of standardized testing in schools. These devices are not good measures of students’ ability to reason or use creative thought. At best they are a measure of what students have been able to memorize. At worst, they are nothing but a measure of how well the students have been taught to achieve on standardized tests.

The great power of reading as a form of entertainment is that it trains the mind to work in ways not necessarily required of it by day to day living. I would posit that those who read more also possess a greater ability to think creatively. Much is made of the ability to “think outside the box.” It would seem that the various boxes which provide our entertainment, television sets, movie screens, and computer monitors, may be reinforcing “in the box” thinking.

It would seem like a logical conclusion that those who lose their ability to think creatively, those who are used to their entertainment leading them by the hand, would be more susceptible to acquiescing to the control of others. Are we gradually losing our ability to question authority? Is our entertainment turning us into sheep who are easily led by those in power?

We’ll have to return to that topic in a later post, this one is starting to run a little long.

My final question is this: what happens to the creative thinkers when there is no more mentally engaging entertainment?

Well, I guess there will always be jobs for content creators.

1 Hence the following.

2 I do plan on doing a dual review at some point. Spoiler: they were both amazing.

3 Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game for the un-itiated.

4 Although if you don’t know what an MMORPG is you are outside of the demographic that usually reads this blog.

5 No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

6 I’m glad you asked.

7 Don’t groan. You are reading the blog of a writer and editor. You should have known that reading was going to pop up at some point.

8 For more on this read this
post and this one.

9 Granted, this worked well since most of the material we were selling consisted of collections of short stories, but it was still more than a little chilling to hear.

10 I am officially sick of hearing about frakin’ Flappy Bird. I'll take my Birds Angry, thank you very much.

11 I will admit that there are some nights that I surf the web in bed instead of picking up one of the books that I am reading.

12 Fear, excitement, dread, anticipation, anger, annoyance (stupid Brett Ratner).

13 I have discussed the emotional release which comes from watching a horror movie multiple times.

14 The Mrs has confessed to me that she does not read the way I do. She does not create these mental words. I suspect that this may have something to do with why she is not an avid reader.