June 2005

Liz Miller


Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson

When was the last time you felt like your brain really got a workout? You might believe it was when you did the New York Times crossword on a Thursday. But Steven Johnson would argue it was the last time you watched The Apprentice or killed a hooker in the midst of Grand Theft Auto.

Everything Bad is Good For You takes the somewhat controversial stance that the media overwhelming today's popular culture -- specifically, video games and television -- are making people smarter by forcing them to make faster, better mental connections. Rather than becoming less intelligent, as conventional wisdom would suggest of a society dominated by presumably low-brow activities, Johnson connects the mental agility required for these new entertainments with the current rise in IQ scores. HIs "old-fashioned work of persuasion" is, in essence, a celebration of complexity -- a fun, accessible read that examines what we really gain from guilty pleasures.

Using the so-called "Sleeper Curve" (a reference to Woody Allen's dystopian comedy Sleeper, where future scientists are stunned by modern man's inability to comprehend the nutritional benefits of cream pies and hot fudge), Johnson identifies the brain exercises that pop culture provides. For, in these post-PONG days, the user of a video game is forced to make sense of an entirely new environment, testing the limits of the virtual world and, in some cases, having to deduce for his/herself the game's direction. In television, complex dramas like The Sopranos, evolved over decades from the like of single-storyline Dragnet, challenge the viewer to track multiple plotlines and character arcs over the course of a few scenes, the layering of stories demanding total attention and focus. The Internet may keep us trapped at our computers for hours on end, but we're engaged, actively participating, making connections as we click link after link, acquiring more information.

Johnson's style is friendly, abandoning any pretense of snobbery in examining the entertainments that cause others to fear society's mental decay. And the scattered personal details giving the work an engaging tone, especially when he assures those without three year olds that Finding Nemo is a lot more complex than they'd assume (his data is based on having rewatched the film dozens of times with his own toddler).

In examining the sharp evolution of these media, Johnson makes out complexity to be its own reward. But what are the ordinary Americans who benefit doing with their new mental prowess? Are they applying their increased ability to reason and theorize towards greater advances in technology and science? Are they better able to cope with others via the social logic learned from The Apprentice? Or are they simply better able to navigate onto the next game stage and comprehend Tony Soprano's latest business dealings? Increased mental capacity means nothing if it's never applied; Johnson believes we're getting smarter, but he doesn't give any indication of what we're supposed to do with that increased intelligence -- beyond playing yet more Half-Life.

Johnson paints a rosy future of keen, cognitively sophisticated men and women -- sitting in front of the TV. We may be getting smarter. But if there's no purpose to it, then wouldn't we be better off giving our brains a break?

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson
ISBN: 1573223077
256 Pages