A few days ago, one of CBC Radio 2's hosts spoke about his childhood and how he used to rush home to watch music videos. That seemingly innocuous facet of adolescence in the 1980's and 90's and the culture surrounding it may have produced some of the more insidious problems that we're facing today.
The way people spend their free time has an affect on their intellectual development. Pastimes can play an important role in forming cognitive abilities and skills and if we do something often for pleasure, we're more likely to get good at it. Similarly, not using skills leads to atrophy. Looking at how people spent their relaxation time over the last century, it's easy to trace a link between some forms of entertainment and the decline in mental exercise corresponding to a celebration of mindlessness and lack of imagination.
100 years ago, children read. Before television and radio, when not outside playing with friends, they consumed adventure novels and stories for entertainment. That forced children to be more literate, to use their imagination and led them to explore the varied ideas that books contain.
Radio came along and while more passive, was not so compelling and encompassing an experience that it could command young listeners' primary focus for hours on end. So books didn't become obsolete. Perhaps radio even had a role in the rise of a new form of children's literature; the comic book. To young minds' benefit, the audio-exclusive nature of radio also required children to use their imaginations when hearing comedy or drama on it, which in its early days was a big part of that medium.
Then came the idiot box, as its cynical detractors call TV, and it was a mixed blessing. It had kids often vacantly watching inane nonsense, but it could also be an invaluable source of information and education, as well as presenting intellectually stimulating entertainment.
Even the less intellectual forms of children's TV entertainment in the 1960 and 70's produced some cognitive stimulation. Bugs Bunny cartoons and Three Stooges shorts, which were staples of children's programming, taught moral vales and even patriotism. They had dramatic structure, protagonists and antagonists, catharses and in essence, adhered to the timeless rules of Aristotle's Poetics.
But along came music videos. While the early ones had some vague story structure, even the best of them did so tenuously. The inescapable reality of music videos was that they were just commercials for songs and music acts that a generation of kids started watching as entertainment. Soon, most abandoned the attempt to even pretend to be anything other than a series of pretty, vacuous images accompanying the songs they were intended to sell.
It may not be a coincidence that the kids who were in grade school at the height of music videos' popularity and fed on its empty-headedness grew into the self-entitled generation of the Occupy Movement and the Quebec student protests.
While that lost generation of spoiled fools may inspire pessimism, there is reason to be optimistic about the future. Music videos are passé now and kids, at least boys, rush home not to watch mindless TV but to interact with it in the form of video games.
Anyone who's cynical about the merits of video games hasn't played one on a sophisticated platform recently. The medium has come a long way from the days of Donkey Kong and Ms Pac Man.
Contemporary video games have intricate story lines, some of which were written by Hollywood's top screenwriters, and are not mere passive entertainment or a series of adrenaline rushes invoked by virtual near-death experiences. They force players to solve complex problems and in online mode, to coordinate and cooperate with their peers in real time.
Like the best entertainment, video games contain engaging heroes and nefarious villains. Better still, unlike our public education system, popular games teach essential life lessons such as reminding youth that communism is evil.
Top games are produced like big-budget movies and for a few years now, the video game industry has out-grossed the movie business's earnings. All this adds up to reasons for encouragement. We may send our children to schools controlled by politically correct wanna-be social engineers. But when the boys get home, they usually rush to flip on the PS3 or Xbox and are exposed to traditional western values - and they do it because they want to.