Friday, April 30, 2010

The Mountains of Ulkor

I've just finished Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, which has been dismissively summarized as “the book that argues that video games make you smarter.” It's actually a very thoughtful book, and if he enjoys thumbing his nose at the people who are always moaning about the decay of civilization, so much the better.

Johnson follows a couple interesting lines, about the evolution of television, and the skills needed for dealing with computers, and pairs them up with a persistently bafflingly fact: that the IQ of the general public has been consistently and impressively increasing, pretty much any way you attempt to measure it.

The measurement of intelligence is hugely controversial, for many reasons, some good and some bad. But leave all that aside for the moment. Whether it measures only a few kinds of problem-solving skills or all problem-solving skill, whether it favors certain subcultures over others, whether what it measures is inborn or acquired – no matter what we think about any of these things – it's still true that if you test a bunch of white kids at preppy schools in the year 1980, and then test a bunch of white kids at preppy schools in the year 2000, you would expect to get more or less the same results. You don't. You consistently get higher scores. And the same is true of black kids at poor schools. Almost every year, to make the average score 100, you have to say something like, “okay, 102 is the new 100.” This is intensely interesting. Johnson, reasonably enough, asks, what's changed? And what's changed most is the media technology. Televison narrative has become more rapid and complex (yes, it's still mostly horrible, but that's not the point. It moves faster and is more complicated.) Video games, even the most mindless shooters, are basically puzzles: moreover, they're puzzles in which the rules are implicit. Part of the puzzle is figuring out how the puzzle works. So Johnson concludes, fairly enough: these things are making us smarter. The argument is quite close and well-substantiated.

Still, while Johnson is a refreshing read, I'm not as encouraged as he is. What he's describing – and what IQ tests measure – is the ability to problem-solve in artificial settings. The ability to guess what the person who made up a test had in mind. To guess how things would work in a made-up world. Your average 12 year old of the year 2010 will leave a 12 year old of 1910 in the dust, levelling up in World of Warcraft. These are real skills, and important ones in the modern world, and I don't want to minimize their importance. We live in an increasingly artificial world, and being able to understand and manipulate artificial systems is crucial to surviving in it.

Nevertheless, I wonder what's happening to people's ability to problem-solve in natural environments. If you took these kids out into the woods and said, “find a way to stay dry when it rains tonight, you have two hours, go!” -- I have a suspicion the 1910 kids would ace it, even the 1910 city kids. Tinkering with physical objects is something people used to do all the time; now it's a restricted subset of workers and hobbyists who have much idea of the properties of soil, wood, water, rock, leaf. And the natural world does not play by the same rules. You get nowhere by guessing at the intentions of a forest, by figuring out what a boulder wants you to do.

Everyone knows that the trickiest and most frustrating machine in an office is the printer. But I don't think most people understand why. It's because the printer does something genuinely difficult: it interacts with the physical world. Most software never has to do that. It simply interacts with people via other software. People, and their systems, try to understand you. It may be irritating when an aggressive spellchecker turns “estimable” into “estimate,” but at least it knows that you're trying to create a word, and that it's made of letters. But the paper and ink and trays and rollers, the levers and shifters of a printer, couldn't care less. If your instructions make the word wander off the page, what do they care? A printer has to change digital instructions into real-world results. It has to deal with real paper, and real ink, with dust, with people who carelessly stuff paper into places not meant for it, with people who pry things open or force them closed, with envelopes whose flaps won't lie flat. This is much, much harder than a simple project such as, for instance, writing a program to gather input and produce a digital tax return. A computer program can imperturbably refuse to honor input it doesn't like. “Not a valid password. Passwords must be 8 characters long and include at least this or that. Please try again,” your program says, and that's that. Until you do something it likes, it won't play. And in the worst case, all it will get (from its point of view) is a sequence of 1's and 0's that it doesn't recognize. But if you feed the wrapper from a cheeseburger into a printer, the poor thing simply has to do its best.

I worry that something fundamental is being lost, when we lose the experience of the intractability of the physical world. Perceiving and responding to people's intentions are valuable skills, but there are many things that have no intentions, and must be dealt with in other ways.

The problems presented in video games and intelligence tests have one common property: they all have solutions. If your quest is to retrieve an enchanted amulet from the Mountains of Ulkor, there's a way, be it ever so tortuous, to do so. If you're supposed to arrange the IQ test blocks as a red diamond on a white field, there's a way to do that. But most real problems don't have that quality. Suppose, just for instance, you want a polity that has low taxes, health care for everyone, full employment, and a military that can assert its dominance anywhere on the globe.

This problem has no solution. It will never have a solution. Yet politicians of every stripe keep asserting that it does, that we can have our cake and eat it too; and people keep voting for those politicians. Our government borrows utterly fantastic sums of money every year just to stay in the game, because we just know that amulet is out there.* We only have to find it. Every year we send fresh-faced teenagers off into the Mountains of Ulkor. Some come back with all their limbs. Some don't come back at all.

The fact is, we have to give up on some things to get other things. Until we have accepted that, and are willing to vote for people who say they'd rather have this and do without that, our political discourse is going to remain bizarre, phantasmagorical. I'd love to see presidential debates in which one candidate argued that having a military as powerful as the next six national militaries combined is more important than all Americans having enough to eat, and the other argued that to have universal free health care, it would be worth it to let a Taliban somewhere keep training terrorists unmolested. But this will never happen in the America I know. Whatever a politician may intend to do, he has to say that he's going to make the country more prosperous and stronger, both at once, all the time.

Clever as we are, I don't our shelter is going to keep out the rain. And as someone observed when I was younger, it's a hard rain's a gonna fall.

*I have no objection to governments borrowing money. I think we should have borrowed a great deal more recently, and pumped an even more massive stimulus into the economy. But I also think – this is the other half of the Keynes strategy, which everyone conveniently forgets about – you have to pay off your debts in good times. Our problem is not that we have entered the second Great Depression: that was bound to happen, sooner or later. It's that we have entered the second Great Depression, after years of high times, already deeply in debt.

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