Sunday, November 7, 2010

Undue Influence

The media's influence on our minds and actions has been in the... media... a lot lately.  My son is discussing in class whether violent video games beget violent people, and whether stereotypes in games cause or add to racial / ethnic prejudice, etc.  I just read about a study that says romance readers are more likely to accept unsafe sexual practices than others.  Most of this is being looked at in the ethics and morals field, less so in the scientific field of human behavior.  I'm a science guy, so I'm going to look at it from a scientific viewpoint.

Sort of.

But not really.  I'll use a single real-life subject -- myself, so my conclusions are not statistically significant.  So be it.

Let's step into the wayback machine, to a time when I was an impressionable teen / pre-teen.  What books did I read and did they leave any lasting impression?  I can only recall the ones that left some kind of impression, because the rest I've forgotten, although there were many.  The ones that I recall, I may have the wrong title for, or no title at all, but I remember the story.

The Other Side of the Mountain triggered a lasting interest in peregrine falcons, their near-extinction, their successful recovery, and their beauty.  However, I never felt any desire to live in a tree-trunk.

A story, whose title I don't recall, about a boy who had a skunk for a pet.  He was a really cool skunk, but I've stayed a cat person.

A biography of Steinmetz, a competitor to Thomas Edison, encouraged the engineer / scientist part of me, while teaching me that sometimes people fail in spite of all their hard work and intelligence.

Another title-free story about a teenage boy who'd just been blinded through  the carelessness of a classmate with a firecracker.  I've never liked loud noises, and this story put the finish on my dislike of personal fireworks, but it also gave me a deep (though admittedly outsider) empathy for the blind and otherwise physically disadvantaged.

A whole lot of sci-fi -- Asimov's robot novels and Foundation series, Niven's Ringworld, Andromeda Strain, etc -- taught me to look to science and technology to solve problems at the same time they create new ones; to think about the (far) future; the law of unintended consequences; and to remember always that people, no matter how powerful, are still just people.

(Only the first book out of 15 or so of) Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan, all about peyote-driven hallucinations and stuff like that.  I still worry about my brother that gave me that book.  I did not develop an interest in drug-induced mysticism, although the out-of-body part of the book intrigued me and I delved into that a bit through sleep-states and a bit of self-hypnosis.

Johnathan Livingston Seagull rocked my world.  It spoke to me (unlike Catcher in the Rye -- I don't think I could ever relate to Holden C.).  Alas, I didn't become a seagull, but the book bolstered my determination to make my own way in life.  Which didn't need any bolstering anyway.

There are undoubtedly other books that I'll remember only after this is posted, but these are enough to make my point.  Did these books influence me?  Of course they did.  Did they make me
  • a violent sociopath?  No, but I didn't read much about violent people.
  • a mystic?  No.  While I have a very active imagination, I believe the world is thoroughly grounded in everyday reality.
  • a drug addict?  Not a chance.
  • a person who chooses to live outside society?  No again.
  • an engineer?  Yes, but my father was an engineer and had much more impact on me than any of these books did.
  • a very different person from who I was already turning out to be?  No, my reading didn't so much change my trajectory as it widened certain parts of the path of my life.
Why is that?  Why is it that (so we're told, anyway) some people are at risk of picking up life-altering "evil ideas" from what they read?  Aren't they then also at risk of picking up life-altering "positive ideas" as well?  [Besides, who's to say what are "good" things and what are "bad"?  That brings us right back to censorship.]  Maybe some people have less of a hold on the direction their inner life is heading in than others do.  I don't think the problem is the book / video game / movie, but the person doing the reading / playing / viewing.  If it wasn't a book that sent them down the wrong path, it would be something, anything, else.

I think those people are already in trouble before-hand.


  1. The argument they use apparently is that children have no way to discern that something is faked vs being real. So seeing someone get shot on TV is like seeing someone get shot in real life. Now, that was from someone who opposed all multimedia. People who oppose games but support movies, argue that it's interactive when movies are not. Nobody's linked this towards books yet, but I bet they would argue that there's no visual component in a book. I would argue that they have no imagination. They could then argue that books are not interactive, which is a reason I prefer games myself. However, I once mentioned this to my psychology teacher in a paper and he wrote in the margin, "Clearly, you're reading the books wrong".

    We're seeing this all big time right now because California has a bill before the Supreme Court to remove first ammendment rights from video games. To the credit of the justices, every time they make a point a judge will ask, "And how is that any different from movies?" ANY type of media, or book, or interaction in general influences you. You mentioned your Dad had a bigger impact on you than the books. I think that goes perfectly with your very last sentence. I'd list parents as number one influence, no doubt about it.

  2. Parents should be the primary influence, but unfortunately not everyone's very good at the parenting thing.

    Your mother reminded me that the young man who killed John Lennon said he was inspired to do so by the main character in Catcher in the Rye. Plenty of books have been held up as corrupting influences.