Two items of interest this week - one an article, one an anecdote - have kept me thinking about the role of the imagination. The first was an article in Atlantic Monthly called Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which the author talks about how he has stopped being able to read in depth. Meaning things like long articles or books, pages and pages of ideas and theories and information, that all used to lead him to deeper thought and analysis. He talks about how having the internet at our fingertips, with dozens of instant results for any information search, leads to us constantly skimming and skipping. Thus he, and many people he has talked to, is losing the capacity for sustained thought and analysis. Or sustained anything where a big bunch of reading is required.
I was talking to my friend G about this, and we agreed. A few years ago, we read a lot of literary fiction. Now it seems like an effort, one I prepare for by eyeing the novel for a few days or weeks before working myself up to it. (A bit like mountain climbing.) I love literary fiction, but less and less am I reading it. Then she told me the anecdote that I will summarise: experts are saying that the toys and games children have now are too finite - everything has a purpose or an "ending" that is limiting kids' imagination. No longer does a cardboard box that could be a dozen different things, from space rocket to boat to house, satisfy parents (or kids sucked in by advertising). Nobody lets their kids play outdoors much anymore, so all those pretend games that go on and on and on, until you get sick of them and invent new ones, don't happen in the same way.
Instead you have a "make over" doll that you put make up on and that's it. Or play a video game with pre-set moves and endings (even multi-choice endings are still endings not created by you, and video worlds are never your imaginary worlds). I've seen little kids with those "action stations" - plastic boards with bells and rattles and moving bits on them that are supposed to mean hours of enjoyment - where the kid gives it a go for about 20 seconds and gets bored. What else can you do with it? Nothing much.
When I did my degree, I studied a unit on artificial intelligence, which was about how close computers were getting to thinking like humans, and what the differences were. That was a while ago, and I'm sure the differences now are minimal. In many things, computers have overtaken us. One day computers will fall in love, perhaps! But the article about Google made me think about the other side of it - are we being encouraged to become more like computers? After all, computerised humans would theoretically be more efficient, less emotional, and more able to quickly process information and get the job done for the boss.
I'm starting to think that what might save us is books, and specifically fiction. With the advances in digital animation, movies no longer have to rely on suggestion or story. They can blitz us with virtual reality on the screen. No imagination needed. But people complain loudly about movies that are all special effects and no story or characters. Where can we go to re-discover our imagination? Stories and books. For those of us who love fiction, the idea that there are kids who hate to read is astounding. When you have had that experience of diving into a book, entering a world in your imagination that sweeps you away, you just can't imagine how anyone would not want to do that!
There are, of course, lots of readers who don't like fiction. But I agree with Nicholas Carr, who wrote the Google article. Having millions of items of information at our fingertips doesn't improve our minds, it just improves our efficiency. If our brains are not going to become just processors of quick, short bursts of stuff, we need the worlds of fiction. And most importantly, so do our kids. So don't go out and buy more stupid plastic toys or video games - buy your kids some books. Read those books with your kids and stir up your own imagination. (And read the article about Google - it's not too long, and it might get you thinking!)