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Everything Bad Is Good For You Steven Johnson Essay

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter

by Steven Johnson

238pp, Allen Lane, £10

I read this book while chain-smoking, glugging whiskey and eating massive quantities of dairy products; now I feel I've been had. Not everything bad is good for you. Steven Johnson's fizzily readable little polemic actually consists of two separate arguments about popular culture.

First, he rails against the notion that our culture is dumbing down; he says that TV, films and video games are better than before. Second, he maintains that these things are actually making us more intelligent.

Johnson makes a persuasive case for the first claim. It is true that TV shows such as The West Wing are more complicated than Starsky and Hutch. It is also true that video games such as SimCity are more complicated than Pac-Man. The uninitiated may learn a lot from Johnson's entertaining and clever account, in the first section, of the sheer hard work and problem-solving required to navigate a modern video game. His fine analyses of obscure in-jokes in Seinfeld or the confusing jargon of ER are also illuminating, and he makes the good point that the era of DVD aftersales encourages more subtlety and complexity in television programming. So far, so good. But perhaps these scattered observations do not cohere well enough into a headline-grabbing thesis. So let's say in addition that this stuff is actually making us smarter. And here the problems begin.

What might "smarter" mean? Johnson never says, and systematically blurs crucial distinctions. Pop culture is "intellectually demanding", or it enhances "our cognitive faculties", or it poses "cognitive challenges", or it has "intellectual benefits". But cognition and intellect are not the same thing. A baseball player or cricketer has a highly specialised cognitive mastery in judging the flight of a ball through the air, but that does not make him necessarily an intellectual powerhouse. Conversely, an intellectual giant might be cognitively challenged in various fields, such as remembering where he put his keys.

The book affects an air of empirical, science-based analysis, but unfortunately Johnson wants it on the cheap. Early on, he grandiosely announces that he will do what most cultural critics fail to do: engage with the findings of neuroscience. What he actually then does is to mumble something about the brain's dopamine system and to guess that videogames might be good at engaging it. He saves his grand proof, meanwhile, for the second half of the book, which goes like this: IQ scores have risen steadily over the last few decades in the industrialised west, so this must be thanks to the cerebral challenges posed by pop culture. Really, must it? You could make an equally plausible case that since banana consumption has risen massively in the west over the same period, it must be the nutritional benefits of bananas, so rich in potassium and other brain-enhancing minerals, that are responsible for a rise in general intelligence. (That is, if rising IQ scores are actually evidence for a rise in intelligence, an idea that is highly controversial.)

What is undeniable is that watching complicated TV shows makes you better at watching more complicated TV shows; and playing video games makes you better at playing more video games. But Johnson wants more: he wants these skills to be, as psychologists would say, transferable. One recent study Johnson triumphantly cites shows that regular video-gamers were better at doing "a series of quick visual recognition tests, picking out the color of a letter or counting the number of objects on a screen". In other words, regular video-gamers were better at performing video game-style tests. This is not a very surprising result.

So much for the pseudo-science. The weirdest aspect of the book is that it defends popular culture while holding an attitude of contempt for it. "With mass culture," Johnson opines, "the individual works are less interesting than the broader trends"; and "the content of most entertainment has less of an impact than the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do". In other words, he is a snob: yes, this stuff is crap, but look, it's useful crap! Embarrassed by the princesses and dungeons of the videogame Zelda, for instance, he pleads that it is a "false premise" that "the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent".

Of course, we know that "content" consists of more than "themes and characters", but Johnson is hobbled by an exclusively literary idea of what content might be. He admits that "Most of the time, when you're hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing", but he never for a moment considers the visual aesthetics of games - how they imagine and construct the next thing for you to see - and cannot allow this to be part of the "content" which he suggests we ignore. He does not seem to notice, moreover, that this wilful blindness is inconsistent with the fact that if video games make us better at anything, it is precisely at visual tasks.

Meanwhile, I defer to no man in my admiration of the television series 24, but again Johnson begs us to forget the "content" and admire instead the complexity of the "social network" that populates the fiction. He even draws a cute little diagram with lines representing the relationships between characters. Is this really what makes 24 so good? "The content of the show may be about revenge killings and terrorist attacks," he says, once again hurriedly skipping over what he perceives to be the crap, "but the collateral learning involves something altogether different, and more nourishing. It's about relationships."

This is hilarious. I have learned nothing nourishing about relationships from 24; I would be deeply worried about any adult who claimed that she had. But the idea that learning about relationships is the desirable thing reveals something interesting. Johnson poses as a hip, wired, ultramodern thinker, yet his notion of cultural value is extraordinarily conservative - based, once again, on values specific to literature. There is a generic problem in our culture with film or pop critics who read everything as a text, and are incapable of discussing the visual or sonic aspects of their subject: Johnson, sadly, fits right in.

Everything Bad Is Good for You is in the end most interesting as an example of a particular philistine current in computer-age thinking. In an age of digitised media, everything is reduced to, and judged by, its brute sum of "information". "What are the rewards of reading?" Johnson asks rhetorically at one point. The answer is: "the information conveyed by the book, and the mental work you have to do to process and store that information." This is a barbaric, instrumentalist view of art. For a corrective, we may remember what André Gide said of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu: "If I try to find the quality I most admire in this work, it is its gratuitousness. I don't know of a more useless work, nor one less anxious to prove something."

Review by Dave Munger

Steven Johnson is a compelling magazine writer. I read his article (now doomed to paid-archive purgatory) in the NY Times Magazine with more than engaged interest, because it gave a surprisingly counterintuitive explanation of the impact of popular culture on society. The article did its job, too, because it made me want to read his new book Everything Bad Is Good for You.

If you’ve read the NYT Mag article and the Wired Magazine article, as I had, you may want to reconsider whether to bother with the book. In the NYT Mag article, Johnson gives a thorough explanation of how, exactly, current television is more sophisticated than the TV of 25 years ago. Compare The Sopranos, say, to Rockford Files, or even Survivor to Battle of the Network Stars. Whether you compare the highbrow shows or the bottom of the barrel, modern TV comes out on top.

In the Wired article, Johnson discusses a curious phenomenon called the Flynn effect, the observation that IQ scores have been increasing at an astounding and regular rate for the past 75 years. He points out that "if someone testing in the top 18 percent the year FDR was elected were to time-travel to the middle of the Carter administration, he would score at the 50th percentile." This rise in IQ scores is in astounding opposition to other measures of academic performance — for example SAT scores have not exhibited a concurrent increase over the same time period (one problem with Johnson’s argument is that he fails to acknowledge that the SAT decline is subject to serious debate. So it’s possible that better schools are responsible for the IQ rise). The logical next step is to argue that if schools are not responsible for the increase in IQ, popular culture must be: the fact that we’re playing more sophisticated video games and watching more complex TV shows and movies is the only possible explanation for the Flynn effect. This seems to me to be a rather large logical leap to make, but I’m willing to let it slide for the moment.

Johnson’s fascinating discussion of current video games is probably the most important reason to consider reading Everything Bad Is Good for You. Video games in 2005 aren’t so much like the video games of 1980 as they are like the complicated role-playing games that emerged in that time period. If you played Dungeons and Dragons or any of its spin-offs or knock-offs back then, you were ripe for casting in Revenge of the Nerds. If you have a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City today, you’re very likely one of the coolest kids on the block. But, Johnson argues, whether you play D&D or GTA, you’re doing pretty much the same thing. Mastery of D&D may have required memorizing three volumes of manuals, but one popular online guide to Grand Theft Auto III exceeds 53,000 words. Johnson points out that the tasks required to complete a current video game are not merely feats of manual dexterity:

I call the mental labor of managing all these simultaneous tasks "telescoping" because of the way the objectives nest inside one another like a collapsed telescope. . . . You can’t progress far in a game if you simply deal with the puzzles you stumble across; you have to coordinate them with the ultimate objectives on the horizon. Talented gamers have mastered the ability to keep all these varied objectives alive in their heads simultaneously.

Out of context, it’s difficult to tell whether this quote refers to video games of the 21st century or role-playing games of the 1980s, and that’s exactly Johnson’s point.

Everything Bad has had its share of reviews and press, from Malcolm Gladwell’s glowing endorsement in the New Yorker, to Steven Zeitchik’s rather more qualified appraisal in the Chicago Tribune. As Johnson gleefully points out on his blog, he even made the cover of New York’s Time Out magazine, along with borderline-mainstream writer Chuck Palahniuk (make sure you click the link for an amusing image).

While the reviews of Johnson’s work express varying degrees of satisfaction with Johnson’s writing style, or the logic in his argument, none that I’ve read take a particularly close look at the psychology behind Everything Bad. The scientific data he cites, to my mind, is quite thin. This isn’t necessarily Johnson’s fault: there just isn’t a lot of data there. Yes, the Flynn effect has been well documented, but Johnson isn’t just arguing for a rise in intelligence; he’s arguing that the cause of this rise is the increasing complexity of popular culture. Yet to support this he cites only one study directly linking the two: a 2003 experiment linking certain visual abilities to playing video games. However, this same study also shows that even non-gamers demonstrate the same increased abilities after just a week of playing games — this seems hardly enough to account for a century’s worth of IQ increases. A second study correlates gaming with social and problem-solving skills, but this simple correlation doesn’t show that popular culture is causing the IQ rise: the opposite could be true, or the two trends might simply be coincidental. I’m not saying the research contradicts Johnson’s conclusion; I’m saying the research he cites doesn’t support it. Indeed, given the astonishing trends Johnson details in his book, it’s surprising that more research hasn’t been done on the subject. My own inquiries into the area have found a few more studies than Johnson mentions, but nothing of the scope and scale to support Johnson’s lofty claims. What I have found is plenty of evidence — which Johnson acknowledges, but glosses over — of some of the harmful effects of popular culture, such as the causal link between violent media and aggression and even physical violence.

In the end, Johnson backs away a bit from the argument promised by the book’s title: we shouldn’t, for example, stop reading books and educate ourselves solely through television and video games. Grand Theft Auto may be a complicated game, but it’s got nothing on, say, Shakespeare. He even acknowledges that he hasn’t exactly proven anything: what he’s offering is a hypothesis to explain both the phenomenal rise in IQ in the 20th century and the increase in complexity of our popular culture. While it may not be an ironclad argument, it’s certainly enough to get you thinking.

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