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Retro Tech and the Limits of Imagination


Jeromy Henry

Will the increasing sophistication of media ruin our ability to imagine, or enhance it?  I think it could do either, depending on the person.

Less detail leaves more to the imagination.  To bring the words of a book to life takes more cognitive effort than does the passive potato-like task of lolling in front of a home theater screen.  It takes more effort to look at the blurry blobs on an ancient 80's video game system's display and transform it mentally into an immersive experience than it does to play the super high-resolution, ultra-detailed games on an X-box or Playstation today.

Even with books, note the drift of the past decades towards more realistic fiction.  Think of the techniques modern authors use and compare them to, say, old-style fairy tales or even books written fifty years ago.  Writer's advice books will tell you to "show" a scene with specific, vivid language rather than just "tell" what happens.  Even most non-writers have probably heard that old saw somewhere.

If media does all the imagining for you, what is there left for the mind to do?

On the flip side, media could also enhance the mental landscape and fuel ever more high-resolution dreams.  Compare watching the Harry Potter movies to cheesy, low-budget fantasy movies from the 80's.  You won't hear me complaining about the difference.  If we see more astounding and sophisticated special effects, that gives us more vivid pictures to cut and paste into the collages of our minds.

What if you lived before printing, TV, or even photographs?  Paintings used to be the height of pictorial technology, and hand-written books cost small fortunes.  Now we have huge TV's, mass printing in bright colors, computers, and video games.  Imagine the dull shades of pre-modern dreams when people did not have such things.

Advances in media will give us even more amazing pictures for us to hang up as deconstructed decorations in our private inner worlds.  Sure, some people might let the wealth of imagery dull their own minds from katanas into butter knives.  Others of us will use the images to sharpen our thoughts and put hilts full of colorful, precious jewels on metal folded a thousand times.

I feel sorry for those who won't exercise their imaginations as much as before.  They will expect an experience to permeate their minds and flush it with a tidal wave of sensations, blowing away any need to visualize gaps in the scene.  Someone else dreams it all up for them, and they just plug in and watch slack-jawed.  That seems kind of sad to me, if that's all someone knows how to do.

Even so, the human race won't ever completely lose its creativity.  We'll lay our media-soaked brains on our pillows and let pixels drip out of our ears, but we will still have good old-fashioned dreams every night.  If computers don't take those over too.

I'll take the old and the new together.  I enjoy retro media because I like to shoot my own mental movies.  Nothing beats a good book, at least in my opinion.  But I think my imagination would be poorer if I hadn't seen the fantastic, richly-detailed sf and fantasy movies of the past decade or two.  I look forward to what technology brings next.

2011-08-15 23:12:56
Ironspider - I've never been an advocate of too much detail, whether in a written story or on film - leave something to the imagination, that's what it's for! In music (and to a degree in film or on tv) I don't like over-production. I listen to progressive rock and metal (as well as UK folk) and don't like albums that are too polished. I prefer a richer sound that speaks of the enjoyment the musicians had in recording the album, rather than feeling it's a piece of soulless, commercial output, only produced to satisfy a contractual requirement (and I do possess a few like that). Some books read as if the author is only going through the motions, just to keep up his or her written output - their enjoyment in writing is diminished, which conveys itself through the story to the reader. I've given up on several authors who no longer seem to have any joy in their work, mechanically putting down lifeless prose and churning out volume after volume of unimaginative drivel. I've read and watched science fiction most of my life and my preference in both media has always been for stories or settings that challenge me to imagine what the created world would be like from the glimpses permitted by the author, screenwriter or director. Despite the advances in thought and technology, I still prefer M John Harrison's Centauri Device to Iain M Bank's Surface Detail, or Blade Runner to Avatar.

2011-08-03 08:33:39
Hey Jer,Mom here... good points made above,and I would agree. I would like to submit also that the majority of the race (human as opposed to it's sub-divisions) has always been divided between the dreamers/poets/artists and the larger masses whose minds are focussed on either the practical day-to-day aspects of survival or pragmatic applications of technology that the dreamers and inventors came up with. Making a living. A dreamer invented the first car for example, or the first trash bag or the loom, and it is a fact that technology as we know it is the essential expression of all imagination. Someone asks "what if" and another asks "How" and they are off and running.That's what computer programming for example is all about isn't it? How to make something happen in cyberspace? Here we are primarily concerned with imagination fueling entertainment and educational technologies, and as always the users and wannabes outnumber the producers. What the mass media of movies, TV, music and computers and smart phones has done is to make more people aware that they have an imagination and give them ways to express it, with a consequent rise of creativity. The number of great classical composers of whom we are aware and whose repertoire is still played is small in comparison to the number of golden oldies still heard on radio. Imagination for the masses has brought all great art and music and literature, learning of all sorts out of the realm of exclusivity to that of commonality, and therefore, the dangers of couch potato syndrome and video game addiction have joined the ranks of human addictive behaviors. So, it is a two-edged sword, but one which has more benefits than not. Back when an artist of any sort needed a patron to support him or her and the work he or she produced, and the work he or she produced was subject to the whim and desire of the patron, the work was available to only the favored few. Education and imaginative expressions of it were not the province of the masses but of the few. In that milieu you and I as writers or artists or musicians would have been SOL. If you weren't rich or supported by the rich you didn't have the wherewithal--hence we have Mozart being buried in a potter's field, and Michelangelo fighting the church tooth and nail for his view of heaven in everything he painted or sculpted, or Dickens writing for a penny a word. Modern technology is the product of imagination and the purveyor of it to the masses, and to some extent I think that is the underpinning for the explosion of creativity in the last century or so. And as you so succintly pointed out, that has produced an incredible result: from "The Wolf Man" to "Avatar". Listen to Les Paul and Mary Ford recordings, the first sound on sound recordings to be made of music performances--they are pure magic, made possible by pure technology. It's a good thing, and I don't necessarily believe that we let the media do our thinking for us. Read the list of credits in the front of any good book and you will see lists and lists of names of contributers who made the book possible, and movies, TV shows, music releases are all the same. To read or hear the magic of the past is just about unbelievable yet we do it everyday. Bottom line? The more the merrier.

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