Friday, July 04, 2008

The Potential Role of Fiction

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!)


Lisa66 said...

Sherryl, this whole area - the dumbing down of our society, especially when it comes to imagination - both fascinates and terrifies me. Especially in relation to children.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was complaining about the cost of the school holidays. She felt compelled to entertain her children for every minute they were away from school, filling their days with movies, outings and new DVDs/computer games when desperate. Her kids are seven years old (twins).

I was amazed at this, because it doesn't occur to me to entertain my kids. I might take them on the odd outing to a museum or a market, but generally the holidays are for chilling out.

We've just spent the past two weeks at our beach house - no cable/computer games etc there. There's a bush paddock a few doors down and the kids spent their time building cubbies and forts there and generally playing make believe. On the wet days they read, made puppets and other creations from the stuff they found in the recycling bin and a roll of sticky tape and did some baking.

Back home for one day and already I've had to limit 'screen time'. Sigh.

I love my computer and especially the internet but I'm afraid if we're not careful we'll all turn into zombies!!

Sherryl said...

It's great to hear there are still some kids who are encouraged and "enabled" to play make-believe. But as you say, when the technology is around, they will use it endlessly.
I find it funny (strange and amusing) how older people are being sold computer programs that stimulate problem-solving and brain work. And told to do Soduku etc. Those are things that drive me mad. Give me a good book any day!

Kristi Holl said...

Having raised my kids on a farm and seen their imaginations (and reading skills) be exceptional (honest!), I was determined to give my grandkids the same experience when they come here. My granddaughter and I turned the shed in back into a "Little House on the Prairie" cabin, we trek to the pond and find endless shells and fossils, and have our best talks throwing rocks in the water while imagining all kinds of things that might live in there. I watch the visiting grandparents spend tons of money on constant games, trips to EXPENSIVE amusement parks and restaurants, etc. and feel sad that they think it's necessary. For all their expensive toys, my grandson's favorite things here are the squirt guns for backyard water fights--and I only have a package of them that came six for a dollar. I feel for kids with no imagination or love of reading. There's nothing you can really replace that with...

About the literary reading--I never thought about it, but in the past few years I've read more literary stuff, mostly published in the past. I thought maybe I was reaching back to a slower, more sane time in history or something. I have to make myself read what's current--I'm afraid I like less and less of it.

Unknown said...

I love your posts Sherryl. You often express the things that I think to myself. I love to walk with my miss so much in the car. What bird is that? Look at that cat in the tree? Let's see if Sophie the puppy is out today...etc etc. Yesterday I took my to daughters on a 7 min train ride to the next town. We walked around the shops, grabbed some lunch then caught the train home. It was a lovely trip. It cost me $2.90 and we were gone for 2 hours. but the best thing is we talked about our adventure for the rest of the day.
Keep posting Sherryl.

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Kristi and Carmel.
I hate the idea that our kids are losing their capacity to imagine, but it sounds like you're going great guns!
All of this reminded me of a picture book I saw last year - "Not a Box" by Antoinette Portis. It's about a rabbit with a cardboard box and all the things he is imagining it to be, while someone in the background is trying to tell him it's just a box. And he tells them very firmly, "It's not a box, it's..." Very simple book, but says it all. Like the kids who get fancy toys at Christmas and have a better time playing with the paper and the box it came in!!