Gioia to graduates: 'Trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones'

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke at Stanford last June:

Entertainment promises us a predictable pleasure–humor, thrills, emotional titillation, or even the odd delight of being vicariously terrified. It exploits and manipulates who we are rather than challenges us with a vision of who we might become. A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.

If you don’t believe me, you should read the statistical studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out–to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

Hmm… multiplayer online games do involve social skills, teamwork, leadership, and many other things that I would consider a social activity, rather than passive entertainment.  The culture of gaming is a spectrum, like all cultures.  It includes those who sit slack-jawed before the screen for hours, mesmerized by bits; but it also includes those who trade tips and write reviews online, and those who write fan fiction, remix videos, or teach themselves 3D design so that they can build their own game levels. The child who, inspired by an encounter with a computer game, spends a month learning how to draw with a 3D design tool can be awakened and transformed as much as a child who spends a month drawing with pen and pencil. 

But I do share Gioia’s humanistic assumption that technology is best understood and most welcome as one element of a rich and diverse society, rather than a replacement for human interaction.

Thanks, Mike, for the e-mail.