Sunday, July 17, 2005

Book review--Everything Bad is Good for You

This book is aimed squarely at those parents and others who share a profound disdain for the "direction" our country is headed based on what they think is a "debasement" due to popular culture. Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You outlines his hypothesis that the main targets--video games, television, and the Internet--of popular culture detractors, instead of contributing to a collective "dumbing down" of our society, are actually increasing the intelligence of people (most importantly children) who participate in playing, watching, or otherwise engaging in them.
The first part of the book details how today's games, shows, films, and other activities are far more complex than those from earlier in the post-World War II era, and that they are continuing to increase in complexity. His observations are so common-sensical as to prevent much argument; who could possibly claim that, tastes in comedy aside, any episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show comes anywhere close to being as richly detailed as any average episode of The Simpsons? The sheer number of allusions or plot somersaults created by The Simpsons' writers on a weekly basis staggers the imagination, but modern audiences have made it one of the longest-running and most popular shows in television history. Television dramas show an even greater leap in complexity--compare Dallas to The West Wing or 24 and you will be left wondering why no one prior to Johnson has pointed out this progression. (And the distance from "Pong" to "The Sims" is so ridiculously great that it barely warrants a mention here.) Johnson even goes so far as to "defend" reality shows such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and even Joe Millionaire as contributing to an improvement in watchers' emotional intelligence and Autism Quotient (a measure of a person's ability to interpret other people's thoughts or feelings accurately), since such shows encourage audiences to "play along" by trying to guess what the show participants will do next or figure out why someone acted in a particular way.
Johnson's argument really comes into focus, however, in the second part of the book, wherein he asserts a connection between this increased/increasing complexity and the improvement in IQ scores over the same time period. This "Flynn Effect", named for a late 1970s study of rising IQ scores by James Flynn, provides Johnson with hypothetical proof of his thesis. Johnson points out the lack of other explanatory phenomena, but also makes his own claims quite lightly. Johnson notes that his theory is just that--a theory-- and that his book is simply an essay designed to provoke research and discussion. What research exists supports his theories, though, and his argument is persuasive on its face. Johnson does not argue that playing "The Sims" will enable a person to actually become a city planner immediately thereafter or that by watching Survivor s/he will be able to read minds, but he does believe that the collateral learning skills acquired by those immersed in popular culture are important and useful in the modern world. More importantly, Johnson's defense of popular culture as a positive good potentially offers a better means by which we might analyze our society, since the prevailing claim that we are in some sort of cultural free fall is clearly untenable--philosophers and critics have been making the same observation for thousands of years. Isn't it time to take a different view?


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