Part 5: Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles

(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

The conventional wisdom seems to say that Americans are getting dumber. One study reported that more people can name the characters in The Simpsons TV show than know the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Other surveys found that only 53 percent know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun, and 24 percent aren't sure what country America gained its independence from.

Yet an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker notes that Americans' IQ scores have been steadily rising for a long time -- so much so that a person whose IQ placed her in the top ten percent of the population in 1920 would be in the bottom third today. One possible explanation: Our "growing stupidity" may better be described as a difficulty keeping up with the ever-growing mass of facts, whereas we are actually becoming better at solving problems.

Gladwell cites the book Everything Bad Is Good for You. Its author, Steven Johnson, argues that pop culture is increasingly expanding our intelligence about social relationships and stretching our ability to sort out complex moral dilemmas. TV shows in the 1970s, like Starsky and Hutch and Dallas, had linear, easy-to-­follow story lines with simple characters who behaved in predictable ways.

More recent shows, like Lost, The Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica weave together a number of convoluted narrative threads that require rapt attention and even repeated viewings in order to understand. Characters often wrestle with contradictory motivations that complicate their behavior as they deal with ambiguous dilemmas for which there are no clearly right solutions. Viewers who take in shows like this are in effect attending brain gyms.

Referencing Johnson, Gladwell says modern video games have an equally salubrious effect on the thinking power of those who play them. Unlike the original models that first became available in the 1980s, the new games are way beyond being mere tests of pattern recognition and motor skills.

"Players are required to manage a dizzying array of information and options," Gladwell writes. "The game presents the player with a series of puzzles, and you can't succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time. You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and coordinate competing interests."

Gladwell acknowledges that knowing objective information about the way the world works is very important, and that we may be less adept at that than were previous generations. In our defense, the amount of information we have to keep track of verges on being infinite. "On an average weekday," wrote Saul Bellow, "The New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare's would have acquired in a lifetime."

So maybe there's a 22-year-old computer programmer out there who thinks that France was the country America freed itself from in 1776, but on the other hand has achieved mastery over both the 53,000-word guide to the "Grand Auto Theft III" video game and the game itself.

In any case, problem-solving is an equally essential measure of intelligence as knowing objective information, and there is evidence that we're growing smarter at that.


We are now living in a golden age for the imagination. We have far more resources to call on to feed our heads than any previous generation of humans.

Here's a small anecdote that illustrates the point. In an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tamara Straus asked author and writing instructor Ethan Canin, "How is American fiction changing?" Canin said, "The young writers I teach have gone from writing small stories set in strip malls . . . to huge novels that take place in Madagascar. They can just look up all kinds of information and photography on the Web."

They can also easily view videos and films of distant places, and they can read a wealth of first-person accounts of people who've been there or live there. Their imaginations aren't confined to working with the environments they know firsthand.

Strauss also asked Canin, "What's a novel you would have liked to have written?" This is his reply: "Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. The novel shared the Booker Prize with The English Patient. It's about a slave ship that goes from Liverpool down to the West Coast of Africa, trades stuff for slaves, and then goes to the West Indies, and trades slaves for rum and sugar. It's about what happens to that ship. I met Barry Unsworth, and I told him what a great novel I thought it was. I said, 'You must have been a sailor all your life.' He said, 'I've never even been on a sailboat.'"

Another great book that takes place at sea is Moby Dick, published in 1851. Its author, Herman Melville, traveled extensively on ships, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Much of the fuel for his imaginative work of fiction came from his actual waking life experiences. Where did Unger's come from? Less direct sources.

I offer the difference between the two men's masterpieces as a symbol for the growing powers of imagination.


Read Part 1 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."

Read Part 2 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."

Read Part 3 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."

Read Part 4 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."