Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Close the windows, please (on life)

We flew down to Houston over the weekend, for a festschrift for Jack Schull on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Center for Demographic and Population Genetics at the University of Texas that he founded in 1972, as well as to celebrate his upcoming 90th birthday.  I was a founding member of the CDPG faculty, and a privilege it was to be in such a distinguished group!  I stayed for 13 years, and Anne worked at the Center for 5 years before we came to Penn State.  The celebration and its associated symposium on genetics now, and back then, made for a fine occasion -- but that's more than we can say about getting there.

Personal entertainment system, Wikipedia
We got on the plane in DC, and there was, as it turned out, a warning sticker advertising DirecTV on the side of the plane by the door as we entered.  Inside, the screens on the seat backs were already turned on, and set to the worst of morning television (which, in truth, is probably all of it).  After enticing us for the duration of the time we spent at the gate, we were then offered the opportunity to pay $8 for access to DirecTV for the duration of the flight.  Wow, we didn't have to turn it off!  We could keep watching stories about surrogate sisters/mothers, fighting lovers, and all the rest of the best the networks have to offer.  And, in fact, we were surrounded by people who swiped their credit cards -- and paid to watch ads.  Willingly.  Without anyone twisting their arms. Then, we were told by a comparable blaring, flashing, relentless high-octane ad that there was still time to sign up for the wonders of 100 channels throughout the flight!  Flash! Flash! Flash! went the endless glaring computer-graphic advertising this wonderful opportunity.

This went on until we were in flight, and then returned several times.  But the most impressive fact of all was that in this beautiful sunny day, as we traversed the country, all the window shades were pulled--so that the sunlit skies wouldn't infringe on anyone's television watching.  The shades were down when we boarded, which had seemed strange, but either reflected the prior flight or the United crew setting the stage for their Flight Mart (later to be supplemented with repetitive hawking of lunches and drinks for sale).

What's wrong with all this, you ask.  Anyone could have chosen not to watch!  And no one was required to.  Well, 15, 10, even 5 years ago, advertising wasn't nearly as ubiquitous, and a lot of people would have protested the presence of ads everywhere you turn.  Now there are even ads in the bottoms of the bins you put your shoes in to go through airport security!  We as a population are even willing to pay to be bombarded by ads!  Not to mention to give up all manner of personal information to Facebook, Gmail, etc. so that they can target ads to our taste.  And it all comes in fast, jerky, Sesame Street fashion.  And, in jammed-up coach seats, if your neighbor is wedded to the television, you get the flash, flash, flash of image-switching that characterizes not just ads but movies and programs themselves these days.  It's some Madison Avenue idea of how to get your attention, manipulate your desires, or whatever.

Advertising really is brilliant when it comes to manipulating behavior.  If only health education were even a tenth as successful (if the message would just sit still long enough to be taught!).  While it's not clear (to us) whether people are willing to sit through ads to watch the talk shows, or sit through the talk shows to watch the ads, what is clear is that the acquiescence is the result of a kind of brainwashing, and it's creeping and insidious.  No wonder zombies are so popular these days.  But the joke's on us.

There's nothing like 3 hours of enforced proximity to complete strangers of all ages and from all walks of life to catch you up with current trends.  One couple traveling with a baby probably 4 months old was using all the latest techniques to keep him from crying.  The mother had a well-used book that was clearly the product of much research, and she kept moving it slowly through his field of vision as his eyes followed.  The pictures were simple and black and white, and there was a red spot on every page.  Surely some child development expert has shown that these kinds of images turn an ordinary child into a brilliant one.  All above average.  Indeed, here's, where "High Contrast Colors are  STILL the best".

But then there's this, from another site, which may be why geniusbabies is so insistent that babies really do need High Contrast:
It is true that objects with patterns having 100% contrast (that is, black-on-white) are the easiest for newborns and young infants to see. However, it is now known that they can distinguish much subtler shades of gray. For example, in the first month babies can distinguish two shades of gray that differ by only 5% in gray level (5% contrast). As good as that is, by 9 weeks of age, infants' contrast sensitivity becomes 10 times better, so that they can see large patterns or objects that have less than 0.5% contrast. This is nearly as good as adult contrast sensitivity (0.2%). This means is that by about 2 months of age your baby is capable of perceiving almost all of the subtle shadings that make our visual world so rich, textured and interesting: shadings in clouds, shadows that are unique to your face; even see a white teddy bear on a white couch!
geniusbabies has invested a lot in black, white and red all over, and now research is saying babies really can see everything.  Oops.

But ok, whatever.  Whether it's high or low contrast images, maybe we should rethink fixating babies to any image at all.  How do we know that's actually beneficial (whatever that means -- IQ scores?)?  Maybe making a baby fixate on such images so much of the time actually stimulates, say, attention deficit disorder.  Maybe a baby is better served being allowed to gaze at his or her fist, as s/he tries to figure out whose fingers those are at the end of it anyway.

We just completely made that up, but here's what one website says, in praise of exposure to high contrast images: "Stimulation appears to foster a desire for more stimulation leading to a cycle of continued engagement and subsequent development."  We could be on to something.  Maybe it leads to a cycle of demanding stimulation?

So we're stodgy and don't want to spend our lives glued to Fox 'News' or ad-heavy rapid-fire violent dramas, and the like.  We won't argue.  This is currently a part of our culture, for whatever reason.  But our point for MT readers is not (just) to gripe, but to suggest that this kind of environment may--must?--have some long term neurological, behavioral, endocrinological, immunological or other effects on people over the long term.  We would wager that such effects would be as great, or even much greater, than the genetic effects everyone is so spaced out over.  But how will we ever know?  Who will remember well enough, or measure accurately enough, or even think to ask about, this frenetic daily experience from cradle to hospital bed.

If as is widely or even openly acknowledged, we are awful at measuring or even identifying environmental risks, that still doesn't slow down the momentum to claim everything is genetic.  Even a serious-minded epidemiologist would be hard pressed, 30 years from now, to include the Flash-Flash effect in risk-factor assessment.  Considering the other subtleties of disease risk, especially in later years, one has evidence that even the month you were born affects risk.

So, that's a problem for epidemiology.  But have we allowed the media industry, not exactly a selfless altruistic part of society, to dizzy us relentlessly, causing much more disease and disorder than we spend so much time trying to prevent as it is?

Who knows about that.  But what we do  know is that we'd much rather spend our flight gazing out the window at the serenely passing parade of the clouds, the skies, and the landscape below.

1 comment:

Steve Bates said...

If you want high contrast to stimulate an infant or child between the ages of, say, 2 and 70, try any of David A. Carter's pop-up works. I'm fond of 600 Black Dots; One Red Dot is also appealing. Since Linda involved herself in a practical class at the Museum of Printing History on making pop-up books, I've seen just about every product of paper engineering out there today.