More on the Benefits of Popular Culture

Greg Lastowka, from Terra Nova, sent me a comment in response to my post on Steven Johnson’s new book, noting that we learn by “playing” at least as much as, and often more than we learn by “receiving information,” and that in both cases, what we’re doing is learning patterns and rules that we use to create new stuff. The dichotomy between “reading” and “playing” is a false one. (Coincidentally, Susan Crawford blogs about Jeff Hawkins’ new book, which appears to make a related point.)

Since the pop-culture-is-good-for-you meme is still puzzling me, here’s my follow-up, paraphrasing my note back to Greg:

I’m certainly in agreement regarding the rule-boundedness of art and creativity. Reading and playing are both rule-bounded and ways of learning the rules.

What I’m questioning is the levels of generality or abstraction at which the learning occurs. Steven Johnson’s argument may be that there is a false dichotomy between playing or performing (video gaming, for example) and static reception of information (reading). Could the case be made for the reverse, that reading is “performing” and playing is “reception of information”? Even if it’s a false dichotomy, the distinction still teaches us something. My take is that the “rules” that we learn via reading are broadly applicable, well beyond the world of literature, and well beyond the world of creating art on our own. (Is it always the case that we always learn more by doing than by reading/watching/listening? I’ve never made a film, so I don’t know much about the mechanics of putting one together, but I’ve learned a lot about movies and stories by watching them. Different levels of generality.) We learn about conventional stories not only because we want to tell stories on our own (though we do, and usually in lots of places beyond the world of literature itself), but also because we want to recognize stories in other places. (Law, to take just one obvious example.) Does playing work at those same broader levels, or does the feedback from playing teach players (merely) the rules of the games themselves? That’s a genuine question, though what little gaming I’ve done over the last 30 years hasn’t taught me too much that I can use outside the world of games. I do, however, have pretty good hand/eye coordination. My students tend to be gamers, not readers, and they tend to have a very difficult time seeing or constructing narratives in the law.