Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter Hardcover – May 10 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Worried about how much time your children spend playing video games? Don't be, advises Johnson—not only are they learning valuable problem-solving skills, they'd probably do better on an IQ test than you or your parents could at their age. Go ahead and let them watch more television, too, since even reality shows can function as "elaborately staged group psychology experiments" to stimulate rather than pacify the brain. With the same winning combination of personal revelation and friendly scientific explanation he displayed in last year's Mind Wide Open, Johnson shatters the conventional wisdom about pop culture as pabulum, showing how video games, television shows and movies have become increasingly complex. Furthermore, he says, consumers are drawn specifically to those products that require the most mental engagement, from small children who can't get enough of their favorite Disney DVDs to adults who find new layers of meaning with each repeated viewing of Seinfeld. Johnson lays out a strong case that what we do for fun is just as educational in its way as what we study in the classroom (although it's still worthwhile to encourage good reading habits, too). There's an important message here for every parent—one they should hear from the source before savvy kids (especially teens) try to take advantage of it. Agent, Lydia Wills at Paradigm. (May)
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From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Johnson puts the much-maligned pastime of playing video games under the microscope and comes up with some startling conclusions concerning the intellectual value and cognitive demands of this pop-culture activity. He argues that it isn't the content of today's games that engages the mind and makes one smarter; rather, it is their ever-increasing level of complexity and sophistication that challenges the mind to grow neurologically. One only comes to understand how to play a game by probing the complex interfaces within its levels to see what works as one goes along. Johnson observes that this is much like real life. He urges parents to sit down with their children and play in order to understand just how mentally challenging the games can be. He extends his argument to TV series such as The Sopranos, 24, Six Feet Under, and Law and Order, all of which, he argues, are multi-threaded and require viewers to think in order to follow the increasingly complex character and plot developments. While the book and its arguments endorsing the cognitive challenges of video games and other mass media are thought-provoking and somewhat convincing, Johnson is less successful in convincing readers that video games–especially the more violent ones–are good for a player's mental health. While the book should be of value for reports, don't be surprised if many students can't resist citing it the next time their parents ask why they haven't finished their homework.–Catherine Gilbride, Farifax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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EVERY CHILDHOOD HAS its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them. Read the first page
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I could quibble on a few points. I think he gives cinema a little too much credit, basing his argument there primarily on a few intelligent films whose box office success ranged from weak to moderate. Strangely absent from Johnson's discussion is popular music, with no disclaimer nor any word of explanation for this. Since music is obviously a vast part of the pop culture landscape, its exclusion scores as a major omission.
But these caveats aside, I found that on the whole Johnson presented a very convincing case that a significant part of pop culture is in fact getting smarter. But regarding his premise that people are getting smarter as a result, that's where he got it very wrong.
For direct corroboration, the only hard statistic Johnson cites is the fact that IQ scores have been rising about 3 points per decade. By his own admission, they have been rising steadily at that rate for the last 70 years or so. Yet he perceives the smartening of pop culture as having started in 1981 (with the premiere of Hill Street Blues). So it seems a bit tenuous to claim the two phenomena are related.
Furthermore, IQ scores only measure a narrow range of intellectual abilities. What they measure is a rather mechanical, almost mathematical, sort of logical ability. They say very little about the more grey and nonlinear intelligence needed to comprehend, for example, literature or political science or comparative religion.
Aside from IQ score data, Johnson builds his case on anecdotal evidence, which in my view is easily refutable by other anecdotal evidence. Johnson presumes that since young people are the ones who soak up the most current pop culture, much can be gleaned from observing them.
That's a sensible rationale, so let's use it. Go into a fast food restaurant where young people work. See how many of them can make the correct change when the computerized cash register fails to work. Count how many teens you can find that can explain anything at length without stammering and peppering their sentences with like's and you-know's. And how long can a typical teen even watch TV without channel surfing?
Johnson acknowledges the studies that expose how embarrassingly little knowledge American students have of, for example, historical literacy. He claims that content is only secondarily important, that young people's skill at video games, computers, and general multi-tasking are skills that easily transfer to other sorts of tasks.
To some extent I would agree. But when significant percentages of young people can't even place the Civil War in the correct century, nor can they give a general description of what the Bill of Rights says, something fundamental and deep is lost. It's a bit simplistic to think that computer game agility is a skill that easily "transfers over" into a grasp of the subtleties of the philosophy of government. There are some intellectual capacities that can only be gained by studying certain things.
He also ignores the fact that these American young people seem to exhibit these skills primarily when something is lighting up, moving, and making noises. What about being able to study and learn when you don't know that there will be a definite reward, as there always is with a computer game? It's quite telling how rarely young people are willing to sit for an extended period of time in a quiet room with only paper and books and no electronic media.
The fact is, students in Russia and some European countries have consistently outscored US students on all sorts of scholastic tests. And they watch TV and play computer games less in those countries.
Johnson mentioned how every household today has a running joke about how the 9-year-old is the only one in the family who can set the VCR clock or figure out how to work the remote. True enough. But that could be for the same reason that any adult found it easier to learn music or a foreign language when they were children. That was always been true long before there was an electronic pop culture. Some skills by their nature are simply easier to learn the younger you start.
Though Johnson misses the point much of the time, I give him credit for attempting to answer a number of devil's advocate counter-arguments. He also writes in a plainspoken and engrossing style. Along the way in making his case, he gives some very readable exposition about other factual matters, such as IQ scores and the Flynn effect. However much or however little you'll agree with him, it's a captivating and enjoyable read.
Johnson begins his book with a vitriolic quote from George Will: "Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of 'choice,' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in - video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity." This quote characterizes the dominant perspective on popular culture. But contrary to intuition, Johnson argues, today's most popular entertainment is enormously complex according to several different metrics, such as number of concurrent plot lines, the interdependence or 'nesting' of those plot lines, the Kolmogorov complexity of the networks relating the characters, and the kind of thinking required to make sense of all this complexity. And what's more, popular media has been trending towards increased complexity for the past half-century.
The economics driving these developments relate to a shift from "least objectionable" programming into "most repeatable" programming, rewarding those games/movies/narratives that embrace ambiguity, those that require the entertained to take a more active and exploratory role in comprehension, and those that reward the inquisitively entertained with yet more ambiguity to resolve upon the next viewing. This neuroeconomic "device" is perfectly designed to hijack the pleasure system by establishing an expectation of reward. It is precisely this type of cognition which has been shown to modulate dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, providing the fix craved by pack-a-day smokers, ice-cream fanatics, and gambling addicts alike.
And while the violence illustrated in games like Grand Theft Auto may seem to provide the cognitive nutrition equivalent to gambling, Johnson emphasizes (to use McLuhan's phrase) that the "medium is the message." It is not the content so much as the method of delivery that determines its most important effects: that of rewarding critical thinking and emphasizing interactivity, whether purely cognitive (as in complex narratives) or integrating motor skills as well (as in games). Whatever the detrimental effects of prime-time depravity might be, the positive effect of this new interactive media trend takes the form of "the Sleeper Curve": a 3-point increase in average IQ per year for each of the past 100 years. To put this change in perspective, consider this: a person placing in the 90th percentile of IQ in 1920 would place in the bottom third of a IQ test in 2000.
"Everything Bad Is Good For You" is an incredibly provocative piece of cultural criticism, and while light on experimental evidence for causal relationships between IQ increases and changes in popular culture, it more than makes up for that shortcoming by illuminating ways in which this evidence might be attained. The book's best moments call to mind the optimism of the early 90s for engineering an interactive techno-topia, but these moments are thankfully tempered with a rigorously historical perspective and a firm grounding in relevant neuroscience. The book should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in communication theory, and is highly recommended for those with an interest in integrating neuroscientific principles with entertainment and education.
Johnson played games as a kid, baseball strategy games, as well as Dungeons and Dragons, and one can detect a certain bias in his outlook. However, his statistical references and footnotes make this book a scholarly look at popular culture - in particular movies, TV and videogames - and is a nice refutation of the "our culture is going into the toilet" crowd.
Johnson argues - to me, convincingly - that even though modern mass market entertainment may appear "dumbed down", it really isn't, and that at a basic physical level, our brains are being made to work harder, get more exercise if you will, and develop higher cognitive functions as a result.
A very complex book written in easy to read language with convincing data to back up the arguments - disguised in a very palatable dialogue that doesn't seem like science at all. He even takes Marshall McLuhan to task on at least one of his conclusions - very daring, and in this case, pays off.
Johnson does miss out on one or two things - the ascendance of message boards is glossed over, or perhaps incorporated into "Internet" "email" and "IMs" in the discussion of why males watch about 1/5 as much TV as they did as little as five years ago.
As a fellow who grew up playing Advanced Squad Leader (arguably a set of rules even more dense than AD&D), I could relate to his argument that kids will learn horribly complex procedures in the name of fun (as he did with his baseball games and D&D sets) and may very well be better for it.
Overall, even if one disagrees with Johnson's arguments or conclusions, the book is fun to read; brings back memories for those who grew up in the 70s and 80s, presents logical arguments, well constructed, easy to understand, and supported by corroborating evidence - including scientific testimony about how the physical (hi Shannon) human brain works. Would love to read a rebuttal, though Johnson has personally sold me over hook, line and sinker. If nothing else, a comforting book amidst doom and gloom prophesies about the fate of our intellect in the hands of TV producers. Well done, Mr. Johnson.
Just to give one example. The author sets out to debunk the popular idea that video games are nothing more than instant gratification. As evidence that they are not instant gratification, he points to the fact that many video games are very difficult and frustrating to complete--so difficult that one needs a guide to solve them. He compares these guides to the Cliff's Notes one uses to help understand a novel.
First of all, while this argument shows that SOME video games, such as Sim City, are not forms of instant gratification (the author simply ignores the types of games that would work against this thesis), it simply raises another problem about such games--the kind of complexity Johnson describes is an entirely mechanical one--taking certain steps to earn your character money so he can buy a house so he can buy another house so he can own a whole block...etc. The "complexity" described in these video games is no more complex than the process a bird goes through to build a nest. It's a big assembly line.
The comparison of video game guides to Cliff's Notes is deeply flawed. Cliff's Notes tell you certain things about a book, but they do not necessarily give you a "key" to help you "solve" the book--and of course, they could not hope to do that, because books are much more complex than cardboard puzzles. In fact, as any English teacher knows, Cliff's Notes are often nothing more than a poor substitute for independent thinking about literature. Video game guides, on the other hand, are in fact evidence of the entirely mundane reality one encounters in video games. Essentially, these guides help you cheat. There is no way in a lot of these games to find certain things that you need (magic keys, etc.)--and being smart has nothing to do with whether you find them or not--it's simply a matter of looking long enough and remembering where you've already gone. Again...takes a long time, sure, and you have to push the button over and over. But in the end, it's no more "complicated" than an Easter egg hunt.
There are similar sleights of hand employed in the following chapters of the book, not really worth enumerating.
I was very disappointed by this book, because, although I am no fan of popular culture by any means, I'm no old-fashioned old geezer either, and I do think it is always interesting to question our basic assumptions about things.
If anything, this book does exactly the opposite of what it sets out to do. It shows the kinds of totally flawed comparisons and arguments that often spring up when people try to defend popular culture. This creates the impression (probably false) that somehow, this popular culture is CAUSING people to think that their poor reasoning passes for wisdom.
Wouldn't it have been more interesting to include the dark side too? Most things are both "bad" for you in some ways and "good" for you in others--this seems a more enlightening way to discuss popular culture.
Johnson's illustration of his childhood game of baseball simulation APBA is not applicable to popular culture because the content of games, television shows, and movies does not involve pure decision making, relationship interpretation, or emotion analysis. In his introduction to the concept of the Sleeper Curve, the author admits to the fact that popular culture is merely "a kind of cognitive workout" instead of "a series of life lessons". Johnson falsely concludes that simply because APBA does not contain moral implication, morality is not a part of the impact brought by popular culture. However, this generalization does not work with most of the products of popular culture. For example, Steven Johnson uses an example of Grand Theft Auto game guide selling more than 1.6 million copies. His point to prove here is that the amount of game guides sold directly reflects the cognitive challenge posed by video games. While there are choices need to be made in Grand Theft Auto, they are morality-related choices. Whether the player decides to steal a car or to kill a policeman have impact on cognitive function as well as morality. The same logic can be applied to modern television shows. Although the seemingly complicated character relationships may require cognitive work, choices made in shows do reflect certain belief and ethics; thus they do have impact on morality. Since popular culture has moral implications, the society cannot dismiss righteousness and only focus on the cognitive function.
The claim that popular culture brings cognition improvement is also fallacious. In the argument for games, Johnson deduces that choices in games indicate not only the cognitive challenge but also the complexity of video games. To demonstrate his point, Johnson describes the complexity--a character needs to find a sailboat in order to cross the ocean so he can get the pearl to locate legendary so he can defeat the villain. Though the process is complex in the sense that it has multiple steps, it is habitual and requires minimal thinking. Everything is complicated if Johnson's logic were to be applied to it. For example, a person needs to find a pot in the cupboard so he can fill it with water so he can place on a stove so he can turn on the stove so he can boil the water. In the section of television shows, Johnson demonstrates the "complexity" of modern shows by illustrating the plot structure of certain episodes of certain modern shows. Even if the generalization is legit, there is no hint of connection between plot structures and intelligence. Though Johnson uses several pages to explain what multithreading in television shows is, he does not explain how it translates into higher intelligence. It is true that today's television shows are more complex than shows forty years ago; there is no way that The Sopranos or 24 has evolved and become more complicated than Tolstoy's War and Peace. People before the time of television, games, and movies did not have problem comprehending intelligent, abstruse literary works with much more complex plot lines and character relationships. Thus, popular culture does not necessarily improve the cognitive function of the society.
It may be tempting to emphasize certain qualities of popular culture because it is so accessible and easy to be immersed in. However, one must look at it objectively. Bombastic claims made in Everything Bad is Good for You about morality and intelligence are idealistic rather than realistic. People on the receiving end of popular are inevitably affected by the ideals and beliefs ingrained in it.
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