Derb does digital


It is never surprising to discover that John Derbyshire has penned an elegant and thought—provoking essay. But it is gasping—for—air shocking when he tells us that popular culture may in fact be more than filth, and actually good for you.

Derb has been reading Steven Johnson's new book, and talking with his 9 year old son Oliver. I've already been down this road through years of debate with my two accomplished video—gaming sons, who have maintained with increasing vigor that they are indeed learning useful skills, not wasting their lives in the fantasy realms they so often inhabit. Aside from some prize money and other loot won in tournaments, the returns have been a bit slow. So far.

Then there is the History Channel, after Fox News the most—watched programming source in our house. Some of the programming can be silly or repetitive (TiVo is a necessary adjunct to skip through all the post commercial break recapitulations), but there is undeniable value to learning the lessons of history in a way accessible to young minds.

But the most telling point of all is the issue of technological meta—skills. Derb writes:

As Johnson writes, they know how to program a VCR not because they've memorized the instructions for every model on the market: 'They know how to program a VCR because they've learned general rules for probing and exploring a piece of technology, rules that come in handy no matter what model VCR you put in front of them.' That is right. The kids aren't just getting facts, nor even merely skills: They are getting meta—skills. My wife bought me this new cellphone three months ago, and I've only just figured out how to store names in the directory. When I lent the thing to my 12—year—old daughter for a school day trip, she racked up $20 of Instant Messaging charges. I don't even know what Instant Messaging is, and have no clue how to do it on my cellphone.

I clearly remember pulling the same sort of rank on my parents in the 1950s, building and hooking—up stereos, for example. But with the computer (and digital offspring) becoming the primary means of wealth—generation, these meta—skills are becoming essential to prosperity and happiness.

Now I think I'll ask my son for help in figuring out the latest glitch on the very instrument upon which I work as I write and post this message.

Thomas Lifson   5 25 05