Barber's central argument is that modern culture has been corrupted by consumerist infantilism, a phenomenon he attributes to late capitalism. Capitalism requires the creation of desires for unneeded products in order to fuel the growth of the market, and infantilism is a cultural mechanism for the manufacture of those desires. In a nutshell, “infantilism” is the tendency of consumer culture to turn children into consumers and consumers into children. It transforms children into consumers by targeting them with advertising, with the aim of making their economic behavior resemble that of adults. It arrests the psychological and moral development of adults by subjecting them to forms of media that inculcate puerile attitudes, primarily thirst for easy, simple, and fast pleasures. It doesn't take much imagination to see where gamers fall into this picture: “consumerism urges us to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us we had to put away, and to enter into the new wold of electronic toys, games, and gadgets that constitute the modern digital playground for adults who, the marked seems to have concluded, no longer need to grow up.” (14)
I have to admit there is an aspect of this argument that hits a little close to home. I have a bunch of plastic instruments in my living room, for chrissake. Like many others of my generation, I've delayed assuming many of the responsibilities of adulthood like marriage and childrearing in order to pursue schooling or our careers. I think many of us worry that that the lives that we have cultivated in the absence of these responsibilities deprives us of the virtues of self-discipline needed to cope with the demands of maturity. These are the anxieties exhaustively cataloged in Judd Apatow's movies-- the challenge for the men in his films is not escaping the world of adulthood (like in The Graduate) but attaining it.
Barber casts himself in the mold of other cultural-jeremiad writers of the last 20 years, most notably Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind reached similar conclusions about the state of American culture from an avowedly conservative standpoint. Like Bloom's book, Consumed has an avowed debt to Rousseau, who had been raising worries of this very kind since the beginning of the modern era, supposing that “The progress of the arts and sciences has added nothing to our real happiness... it has corrupted our morals; and... that corruption has vitiated our taste.” Barber's book is at its best when he draws on the civic republicanism of Rousseau and De Tocqueville in order to articulate his worries about the fate of democratic culture in an economic system built around the unlimited satisfaction of private desire. His advocacy of this tradition is clearly presented and persuasive; he presents the complicated philosophical ideas at work in this critical tradition in a great depth without sacrificing accessibility, which is an achievement.
The long pedigree of his arguments about modern culture, however, also points to the most telling point against them: arguments of this exact form have been raised against nearly every distinctly modern art form. The novel, modern popular music (both jazz and rock), and cinema were all accused of undermining the fabric of society by instilling sensual lassitude in the audience. (The jury is still out on the other great society-destructive medium of the 20th, century, television. But not for long.) Twentieth-Century Marxists of Barber's intellectual stripe, in particular, have a deplorable record on producing unprejudiced views of postmodern cultural forms: Adorno, in a personal nadir, called Jazz a form of ritualized castration.
Barber resembles no one so much as the neo-Marxist cultural critic Herbert Marcuse, whose Freudian analysis of consumer culture as a form of infantile repression he adopts wholesale. Much like Marcuse, Barber makes a set of provocative and insightful observations about the cultural dynamics of capitalism and then proceeds to overstate those observations to such a degree that its makes those original insights look unappealing. Barber also resembles Marcuse in his shrill, humorless tone and his slipshod and uncharitable treatment of his intellectual opponents. Barber's paean to the hard-won pleasures of civility and mutual understanding would be more convincing if his work exemplified these virtues.
His critique of Stephen Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, is a prime example of this. Barber derides Johnson as a modern-day Pangloss, but Johnson's central thesis that modern forms of media require a relatively high degree of cognitive engagement on the part of the audience is not even seriously considered, much less refuted. Because Johnson's claim runs counter to Barber's central argument, he owes the reader a refutation; instead he asserts that Johnson's work is illustrative of the dangers of critical slumming: basking in the transgressive thrill of shallow consumerist entertainments. There are good criticisms of Johnson's work to be made, but this is not one of them. Johnson's account of fames is, if anything, excessively cerebral: he resolutely stresses the problem-solving element of games over against their immediate aesthetic pleasures.
Because he dismisses Johnson's work without bothering to understand it, Barber rehearses the antiquated criticism that games are exclusively about developing reflexes: “Video games too depend on rapid neurological response and instant reaction to stimuli. Such games are intrinsically tied to the perpetuation of childhood and represent turning adults into consumers of children's commodities... But even as measured by speed alone, intelligence in the world of digital games is associated with rapid firing of extant synapses rather than the forging of new synapses that constitutes traditional associative intelligence.” (100) Leaving aside that fact that Barber offers no evidence for the latter claim (which I might find justifiable had Barber not specifically criticized Johnson for inadequately supporting empirical claims), the conception of games advanced here is just antiquated: it trades on a knowledge of games that begins and ends with Pac-man. Place him in front of the game Civilization (which gets an unearned swipe on page p.7) for a bare three minutes and Barber's argument will begin to look silly.
The ironic thing about all this is that Barber approvingly cites Erik Erikson's description of the function of play, “Play is the infantile form of the human ability to master reality by experiment and planning,” and then goes on to equate this exercise with art: “Adults invent and create by transforming child's play into a grown-up tool, which is an aspect of what artists do, for example.”(84) This is as good a description of what goes on in video games as you will find.
Tomorrow: What Barber gets right.