There's a theory that, on the whole, Americans are getting smarter. Of course, this depends on what you mean by smart. The Simpsons did as much as anything with the current preoccupation with references. For a few years, this cartoon would reference movies. It doesn't do this much anymore, but it has spawned a lot of referential work.
Another example was the Scream horror films which deconstructed horror films while itself being a horror film, or Tarantino bizarre musings on what they call a quarter pounder in France, or that Clark Kent is really a disguise or costume for Superman.
Reference spewing forces people to remember lines from movies (most notably Star Wars), books, and other cultural occasions (remember "wardrobe malfunction" or "mother of all wars"?). This ability to recognize cultural references makes it nearly impossible for foreigners who aren't steeped in American culture to follow what's going on. It takes a lot of work to be this savvy about the world.
There are at least two more things happening culturally that have made people "smarter". One is search engines. It used to be, once upon a time, that if you wanted to find information, you had to go look it up, say, in an encyclopedia. Even as comprehensive as some encyclopedias are, they don't cover many topics. Search engines allow you to find web resources, even if some of the sources aren't entirely reliable.
The second is video games. Once upon a time, people used to say video games helped you with hand eye coordination, and while that was true, in a sense, it primarily helped you with, well, playing video games. But then video games became more puzzling. There's many a game where you must figure out what's going on with limited clues. I can imagine such games being incomprehensible to people of a certain generation used to games like Monopoly or even Clue.
The increased intelligence of viewers has meant television that has become more intelligent as well. Comic books have labryinthian plots that are more soap opera than soap operas (ask a comic book fan, especially in one of the major universes, explain what's going on, and you'll see it's a disaster), and such ideas carry on into films. Joss Whedon was especially effective building up genre expectations only to twist in the end, giving you a result you didn't expect.
But in the end, is this really intelligence? It seems like the kind of intelligence IQ tests test for. But will we solve any new problems this way? Will new theories of physics come from this kind of raised intelligence?
Much of this ability is assessing what's important to a society at a point in time. And yet, it's information that stales quickly. I remember watching a British Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show. In it, they interview Jamie Cullum (who I'm currently listening to). He's into jazzy songs and covers, and seems like a huge hit in UK, though he's not all that well known in the US. I suspect the reason he was interviewed was because he was the flavor du jour. Maybe his talent will persist longer than, say, Vanilla Ice (he does seem more talented, in any case).
Are we acquiring information that is mildly useless, that goes out of style in a year's time? In fact, this almost defines technology. Technology is changing at a rapid rate, and in this superficial sort of way, as people fumble to the next best thing, meanwhile struggling with the monstrosity they have created.
Even my introspective rant probably wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. I might not have cared about these issues (though 7 years ago, I began to care, when I was mired in IRC and chat in general, and seeing how behavior changed under these circumstances).
I don't disapprove of this kind of knowledge, and in some indirect way, it probably is making us smarter, though not in any tangible sort of way. Would it be better if we sat with math books working out theorems devoid of what's going on in the outside world? Or is it better to "learn" what the culture thinks is important, so we can say something clever or witty about it.
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