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Friday, March 16, 2012

Are books white bread for the mind?

Unschooling Rules: 
10. Animals are better than books about animals.
21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”?

White bread is wonderful. Our parents and their parents swore by it as key to our diet. It is part of our culture, depicted in oil paintings and discussed in epic poetry. Preparing bread is a cultural milestone from our own Paleolithic history. Just mentioning a great baguette, brioche, or even peasant bread makes my mouth water.

And yet we are learning that it is not the perfect food. The process of preparing white flour might take out much of what was good in it. The results is something that tricks our body into thinking it is getting nourishment, while spiking and upsetting parts of our own internal chemical balance.
White bread is still a fabulous treat, and it fits nicely into a healthy diet in moderation. But to go overboard with it results in bloat rather than health.

That brings us back to books. We are very proud of books. Many have a religious zeal about them, especially those old enough to remember when they were scarce, or with strong connections to people who did. We all have books that transformed our view of the world, and influenced moral and career decisions. There is no better way of transferring someone else’s internal monologue than a good book. They teach us empathy and respect. We can also get facts, allowing us to make more informed decisions.

Books are also a great example of mature technology. They are cheap to produce, easy to store, and require no energy or other supporting infrastructure. The only access barrier is literacy. Libraries are filled with them.

And yet, as we try to take what we have read and apply it to real situations in an attempt to get a desired result, we are starting to have our own Atkins “aha’s.” We become increasingly aware of what they don’t contain, such as a focus on actions, and the impact of rigorous systems including the emergent actions of units, as much as what they do contain. We love the buzz of a good book, like a good vacation, but hate the transition back to our world.

Consider the pairing of frustration and resolution. This is at the heart of, well, probably everything to do with life and growth.

But look at frustration/resolution in passive stories and frustration/resolution in simulations; you can see why stories might be making us feel smarter by tricking us, rather than actually increasing our capacity.

In creating passive stories, it is fairly easy to set up a good frustration/resolution pairing.
  • Shark attacks swimmer.
  • Physically attractive ex-girlfriend/boyfriend re-emerges after 10 years with a dark secret.
  • The instructions for a better life/how to avoid a major problem are to follow…
In all of these, whether it be a novel, a movie, or the evening news, we just have to sit back and consume more, and we will get the resolution. We can be members of an audience. It feels so satisfying, for a few moments. But we are instantly hungry again, and the right masters of the medium will once again tantalize us with another frustration/resolution pairing (or have three or four recursive pairing going on at once, so while we are told the resolution of a more specific paring, we still have the bigger one to resolve).

Passive stories are thought to be the crowning achievements of our civilization, driving books, movies, magazine, and most of our school system. We all have intense, positive relationships with at least a few examples of each.

But like white bread and refined sugar, they may just be addicting us, actually reducing our ability to act, not increasing it. And maybe, just maybe, the manifest destiny of knowledge creators is to help people overcome this addiction, not enable it.


This is an excerpt from my fourth book The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, published by Wiley (2009), written for Corporate and Military professional instructional designers

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. It's a bugbear of mine, mediocre films and books. Just because they are wrapped in a medium we admire does not make the content any good. They are too easy to absorb and too addictive. Yes, like factory bread and sugary foods. Good literature, on the other hand, is provoking and disturbing, and has unresolved, ambiguous endings. Or should have. Like life itself. It so annoys me that we have an inherited internal script that things will 'work out'. So I avoid all that stuff. The problem of course, is our inability to filter out the rubbish. Unsurprisingly, standard industrialised education does not help with this. That's one of the main reasons we are home-edding/unschooling. To build critical awareness of everything that's around us. There is a lot to process these days and I want my children to be able to navigate through with an inner confidence.

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