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Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter Hardcover – May 5, 2005

135 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews 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

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; 1 edition (May 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573223077
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573223072
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (135 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #383,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven Johnson is the best-selling author of seven books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. His writings have influenced everything from the way political campaigns use the Internet, to cutting-edge ideas in urban planning, to the battle against 21st-century terrorism. In 2010, he was chosen by Prospect magazine as one of the Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future.

His latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, was a finalist for the 800CEORead award for best business book of 2010, and was ranked as one of the year's best books by The Economist. His book The Ghost Map was one of the ten best nonfiction books of 2006 according to Entertainment Weekly. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Steven has also co-created three influential web sites: the pioneering online magazine FEED, the Webby-Award-winning community site,, and most recently the hyperlocal media site, which was acquired by AOL in 2011. He serves on the advisory boards of a number of Internet-related companies, including, Betaworks, and Nerve.

Steven is a contributing editor to Wired magazine and is the 2009 Hearst New Media Professional-in-Residence at The Journalism School, Columbia University. He won the Newhouse School fourth annual Mirror Awards for his TIME magazine cover article titled "How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live." Steven has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and many other periodicals. He has appeared on many high-profile television programs, including The Charlie Rose Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lectures widely on technological, scientific, and cultural issues. He blogs at and is @stevenbjohnson on Twitter. He lives in Marin County, California with his wife and three sons.

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#93 in Books > History

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

153 of 163 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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19 of 19 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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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By jacobhu12 on August 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson states that popular culture, which has grown more complex in recent years, is sharpening the minds of today. In making his statement, Johnson clarifies that although popular culture is enhancing the cognitive ability of people on the receiving end of television, video games, and movies, it does not "contain anything resembling moral instruction" and therefore can be considered completely separated from morality while being evaluated. Johnson concludes his premise of the argument by saying: "Today's popular culture may not be showing the righteous path. But it is making us smarter." However, righteousness or ethics cannot be divorced from intelligence in popular culture, in which moral implications are present.

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.
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