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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter Paperback


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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter + Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business + The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 254 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade; 1 Reprint edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594481946
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594481949
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 6.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In his fourth book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, iconoclastic science writer Steven Johnson (who used himself as a test subject for the latest neurological technology in his last book, Mind Wide Open) takes on one of the most widely held preconceptions of the postmodern world--the belief that video games, television shows, and other forms of popular entertainment are detrimental to Americans' cognitive and moral development. Everything Good builds a case to the contrary that is engaging, thorough, and ultimately convincing.

The heart of Johnson's argument is something called the Sleeper Curve--a universe of popular entertainment that trends, intellectually speaking, ever upward, so that today's pop-culture consumer has to do more "cognitive work"--making snap decisions and coming up with long-term strategies in role-playing video games, for example, or mastering new virtual environments on the Internet-- than ever before. Johnson makes a compelling case that even today's least nutritional TV junk food–the Joe Millionaires and Survivors so commonly derided as evidence of America's cultural decline--is more complex and stimulating, in terms of plot complexity and the amount of external information viewers need to understand them, than the Love Boats and I Love Lucys that preceded it. When it comes to television, even (perhaps especially) crappy television, Johnson argues, "the content is less interesting than the cognitive work the show elicits from your mind."
Johnson's work has been controversial, as befits a writer willing to challenge wisdom so conventional it has ossified into accepted truth. But even the most skeptical readers should be captivated by the intriguing questions Johnson raises, whether or not they choose to accept his answers. --Erica C. Barnett --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

Questions from Readers for Steven Johnson

Q
Steven, you've often written about the ways in which a city's density enables great ideas to flourish. You've applied the same metaphor to the web as a engine of creativity and innovation. What about book-reading? Do see our natural inclinations...
Ryan T. Meehan asked Aug 30, 2011
Author Answered

Well, my first response is that the book, in its traditional form, has been as much of an idea generator as the Web or the city over the centuries. In part that was because it had been the best mechanism for storing and sharing information, before computers and networks came along. But also because the linear format of the book -- and the word count of most books -- allowed more complex and important arguments or observations to be presented. So I would hope we can preserve some of that linearity and that length in the digital age. But in general, I am exhilarated by all the new possibilities of the networked book. I wrote an essay for the WSJ journal a few years ago -- inspired actually by the Kindle I had just bought -- about where I thought the book was heading. Here's the link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html

Steven Johnson answered Aug 31, 2011

Customer Reviews

This book was an interesting read.
M. Reed
Johnson argues that video games, TV shows, music, and other elements of the popular culture are much more complex than they once were.
L. F. Smith
You may agree or disagree with the argument presented by the author, it doesn't matter.
Daniel K. Taylor

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 140 people found the following review helpful By David Fentress on June 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Johnson highlights the ways in which some pop-culture is in fact more intellectually demanding than that of the past. He points to TV programs such as Hill Street Blues, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons, with their continuous stories, multiple plot threads, and their references to other pop-culture. He also wrote a great deal highlighting the depth and intricacy of many computer games.

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.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Chris Chatham on January 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Steven Johnson's newest book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You" makes the controversial claim that popular culture engages us in a kind of mental calisthenics, resulting in the drastic changes in IQ distribution seen in the last 50 years. He describes beneficial effects of changes in popular culture - changes that have often been decried as hallmarks of societal demise - and shows how these new forms of media exploit our natural reward circuitry. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, Johnson says it's not so much the content (or 'message') of cultural media like Grand Theft Auto and The Sopranos, but the multi-threaded, interactive style of delivery (the 'medium') that engages us in a cognitive workout, and ultimately results in the drastic IQ increases of post-World War II America.

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.
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110 of 136 people found the following review helpful By Michael A Dorosh on May 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Very good book, written from the perspective of a teenaged gamer made good.

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.
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