Dumbification and the science of Engagement

PR prodigy & digital renaissance girl, Amanda Mooney, points us this morning in the direction of a new book, “The Dumbest Generation”. In it, Mark Bauerlein argues that the kids are trading enrichment for entertainment, and the Internet is to blame. 

My gut reaction is that this is both true and misleading. (I have yet to read the book, but before you take me to the coals, Amanda and I are cooking up a virtual book club, so if you’re interested in reading this with us, drop me an email

My thinking is that enrichment and entertainment are individually quite valuable, and indispensable when combined. The ‘problem’ (i.e., opportunity) I see is that a science is developing around entertainment-engagement, while self-enrichment is largely left to the motivation of the individual. 

Nailing the 'entertainment equation’ yields megabucks (last week alone: Iron Man $100 million, GTA4 $500 million. Facebook is valued at over a $15 billion dollars). Where there is money, there is research and experimentation, and investment equals advancement. We’re learning what is engaging, what is frustrating, and what is fun. The better we understand those dynamics, the greater the pull of these products, games and services.

It’s no surprise that kids are drawn in this direction; that’s the idea! These diversions aren’t without cognitive benefit, however. Games teach abstractions, demand practice, encourage puzzle solving, and in some cases teach skills (ask me about my singing!). Multiplayer games foster competition, coordination and cooperation. Social services encourage peer interaction, help us understand social nuance, while granting us a cultural 'six-sense’.

So why hasn’t enrichment’s pull caught up? Video-game engagement 'technology’ is equally applicable to education-based products and systems. Is it an economic problem, or an older-generation stigma around video games? Perhaps this is just the natural cycle with entertainment leading education (In Latin, the word ludus means both school and game. The relation between these two concepts may be exceedingly old).

My personal belief is that we’re still transitioning through an enablement phase, and when we’ve emerged, we’ll collectively return to the kind of ideas and discourse Bauerlein worries we’re ignoring. When the dust settles, when game technology and social networks are part of the day-to-day for everyone, and we have an intuitive sense of their value and boundaries, we’ll find new intellectual dimensions to compete on. 

Trivially, individuals with an intellectual edge will 'win’ when all else is equal. So no matter what dips or regressions we suffer, we’ll always creep back in that direction. If you’d prefer to leap in that direction, we have an incredible opportunity to apply entertainment’s new power-of-the-pull science to enrichment.

Maybe, “The Dumbest Generation” is about to birth “The Smartest Generation”.