Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pity Us, the Poor, Pitiful Literates of Society

Baby Boomers prided themselves for being the most educated generation in history – at least until the GenXers came along. But in the not-too-distant future, we snooty Boomers may be regarded as hold-outs of the backward-looking “literate” society in a world evolving toward a “non-literate” society.

“Non-literate,” a descriptor for those who rely heavily upon books, magazines and newspapers to absorb knowledge, is not the same as “illiterate,” a tag for those unable read those publications. Rather, “non-literate” characterizes a society that downplays the written word in favor of a society “immersed in knowledge, imagery, social networks, fiction, world events and massive amounts of sensorial stimulation ... mediated by technological means.”

That comes from Donald Marinelli, executive producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in a speech delivered to the 2008 International Conference of Entertaining Computing.

Marinelli expects video games, which Boomers regard as a frivolity or amusement, to become an central element of society.

Let us recognize that videogames have become an integral part of all aspects of daily existence: from home to school to the workplace to the matrix of our real and imagined lives. And it is morphing constantly into variations and applications affecting every imaginable discipline, and many that will be created and crafted by succeeding generations of "digital natives."

The time will come when questioning the value or veracity of videogames will be as inane as pondering whether or not Shakespeare was correct when he said our lives mirrored the roles played by actors upon a stage.
Marinelli's world will present a difficult challenge to Baby Boomers. While we Boomers have taken to e-mail and the World Wide Web, there may be limits to which we can acclimate ourselves to an all-digital world and artificial universes. Our brains have been sculpted to think and conceptualize the world around us in verbal terms. (OK, a few mathematically literate people may view the world in terms of numbers, but most of us are stuck in a verbal world.) But technology is hurtling by. As I interpret Marinelli, new paradigms of visualizing and thinking are arising – less sequential, more three-dimensional; less verbal, more visual; less literal, more hypothetical.

Video “games” used for entertainment are morphing into tools for simulating the world and aiding decision making. They are infiltrating museums, schools, medical institutions and the military-industrial complex. As computational capability becomes ubiquitous, embedded in every device, as I understand Marinelli, so will gaming and simulation.

Boomers are accustomed to redefining society on their own terms and thinking of themselves as agents of change. But our neural pathways are largely set. This is one revolution we are unlikely to lead. Indeed, as the pace of technological change accelerates, we’ll find ourselves falling further and further behind. One day, younger generations may mock us for our primitive, “literate” ways.

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