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Customer Review

164 of 174 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much to recommend, but misses the big picture., June 28, 2005
This review is from: Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (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. 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.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 27, 2009 8:45:21 AM PDT
David, I can't say you're wrong, but how can you criticize Johnson's anecdotal, correlative data and then turn around and write, "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." That's correlative and presumptive data if ever I've seen it.

Pointing to the general stupidity of our youth sounds like a good argument against Johnson's thesis as well, but it's a bit of a straw-man in that it assumes that prior to the advent of these pop culture media (and content,) absolutely everyone could make perfect change off the top of his head, or was fully aware of the Bill of Rights and its nuances, etc. Stupidity is not new to society in any way, though we are now more adept at tracking it. I haven't lived in the United States for awhile but I remember a recurring segment on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno wherein Jay went around Los Angeles (and, I presume, other cities) asking extremely basic questions (state capitals, where certain wars were fought, etc.) and mocking the many people unable to answer them. I also recall that these rubes varied widely in age, which suggests that either stupidity gleaned from video games, reality TV, etc. is indifferent to age, gender, race, education level, and actual consumption of said media, or that some people are simply bad at remembering things and/or less intelligent than others. I think that if there has been a decrease in general intelligence it likely has more to do with educational systems as well as an inability of said systems to adapt to, and utilize new media. For example, as an Atheist, I genuinely believe that certain Southern US States laws against teaching evolution as fact (and thereby allowing creationism to be taught as valid science) is far more detrimental to children's collective intelligence (not to mention the role of the government.)

The best counter-argument to Johnson is the shortening of the attention span. As a massive fan of the West Wing, I can certainly stay engrossed in that show for hours on end, though I will often "multi-task" throughout, which means that, much as I love the show, it cannot (or, I suppose, does not) capture my attention fully.

That said, I'm a product of Neil Postman's, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" dystopia (age 25), having grown up on video games, TV, and the internet, and have read James Joyce's, "Ulysses" twice*, so I suppose the demands of a media product (regardless of medium or era) dictate my personal attention more than the medium itself.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book, though I admit there are certainly holes in some arguments, I just feel that David displayed a bit of the "knee-jerk" reaction to the idea that these things could be positive that is not only unhelpful, but the exact reaction that Johnson asks his readers not to have.

*This was not meant to be self-aggrandizing, merely a comment that with all the damage to the attention span I was able to read what is considered one of the most complex novels ever written. **

**Never got through "Finnegan's Wake" though...

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2009 8:42:59 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 28, 2009 9:06:48 AM PDT
John, thanks for taking the effort to comment on my review. I have some counter comments to offer.

On your saying that I was being merely anecdotal on my when I said that students in the Russia and Europe outscore US students and they do indulge media less, perhaps I should has made that more clear. I didn't bother to dig up sources to cite for a casual amazon.com review. But I have read of statistics that back that up as fact, both on the test scores and young peoples' viewing/playing habits. That wasn't just some vague impression I had; it is fact. But I can see how it might have come off that way.

You said "...it's a bit of a straw-man in that it assumes that prior to the advent of these pop culture media (and content,) absolutely everyone could make perfect change off the top of his head, or was fully aware of the Bill of Rights and its nuances, etc"

You're employing a common arguing tactic that ultimately isn't reasonable. You're not arguing against what I actually said. Instead, you're arguing against an overly-extrapolated version of what I said. I never said that "absolutely everyone" was capable of those tasks. My argument does not presume that. It only presumes people were relatively better at those tasks in the past (and you're certainly entitled to disagree with that). I also didn't say anything to preclude the notion that some amount of stupidity has always been with us (and I agree with you that it has). And there are plenty of highly intelligent young people today. The debate is a matter of comparing shades of grey in one era to shades of grey in another era, which doesn't necessarily mean - as people often argue - that we can't make some statement of relative differences either way. But you're distorting my original grays into black-and-whites.

You said, "I think that if there has been a decrease in general intelligence it likely has more to do with educational systems as well as an inability of said systems to adapt to, and utilize new media."

That's a fair point. Some underfunded school systems aren't able to compete in this way. I do notice that how many computers per student a school has has been assumed to be a good criterion for quality of a school. I can't help but wonder if perhaps that's at the expense of basic timeless learning skills. Of course, you're right that even if schools are technically equipped my some measure, that doesn't mean they're optimizing it the greatest learning benefit.

"I genuinely believe that certain Southern US States laws against teaching evolution as fact (and thereby allowing creationism to be taught as valid science) is far more detrimental to children's collective intelligence".

I agree with you this teaching of creationism as science is ignorant. It's downright embarrassing. However, one could say that even if students were taught science the correct way, they might still fail to grasp it because for whatever reasons - whether it's media saturation or the failure of schools - they might not have the learning skills to even grasp the nuances of evolution versus creation. The cognitive tools issue is essential.

" I just feel that David displayed a bit of the "knee-jerk" reaction to the idea that these things could be positive"

I will say politely that doesn't seem to me like a fair criticism. If you re-read my review, you will see that I agree that much of the TV and video games has indeed gotten smarter. And there are some skills, like programming a remote, or multi-tasking in general, that young people seem to be better at than older people. I differ from Johnson in that when you consider all mental skills as a whole that the population is getting smarter as a result of smart media. Granted much of my argument is anecdotal, but I feel it was well reasoned. You're welcome to have a differing view as much as you please. I welcome lively debate. But let's stick to comparing your substantive ideas to my substantive ideas. Characterizing one's motivation isn't fair.

I have great respect for your having read Ulysses twice. That's quite an achievement!

Again, I found your comments interesting and enjoyable. Thanks.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2009 11:30:16 AM PDT
David,

It's late at night over here, and I don't have much to say at the time, other than that you are certainly correct in saying that I extrapolated and/or assumed a thesis fro some of your comments when I shouldn't have. For that I apologize.

What I would like to say though, is that I'm genuinely glad that there is still space for debate like this in spite of, because of, or simply within the new media landscape. I agree that Johnson missed out on some obvious points (I still laugh about his afterward in which a proper British cultural critic was miffed about his omission of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") but I found this a very worthwhile read and, at least from my own experiences and inference, feel he has done more good than harm, not to mention that it's simply nice to hear someone voicing such a vastly contrarian opinion with a solid thesis, whether or not the evidence is conclusive or fully-encompasing.

On that note, I would highly recommend Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," an earlier argument against Johnson that is extremely well written (though perhaps a bit more preachy,) and provides a very good thesis about the dangers of pop-culture saturation. Postman as well lacks a lot of proper scientific evidence, but his theory, thesis, and arguments are very sound and well worth a read (if, of course, you haven't read it already.)

Thanks for the reply and thanks for the insightful reviewing! Cheers!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2009 3:14:44 PM PDT
Hi John,

No hard feelings whatsoever. In retrospect, I may have over-reacted just a bit.

Yes, actually I'm quite a fan of Amusing Ourselves to Death, though it's been several years since I read it. I thought it was particularly interesting that Postman said from the outset that his book was not about the subject of whether the content of entertainment TV is junk. That could be another discussion entirely, and that enjoying a little junk is fine as long as you know that's what you're doing. But rather he was questioning TV as a suitable method of delivery for news and other hard information. Excellent book.

I've enjoyed this dialogue. Let's hear it for civilized debate.

David

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2010 1:26:12 PM PDT
Nathan B says:
Interesting discussion, thanks guys for taking the time.

Posted on Nov 9, 2010 6:56:06 PM PST
V.Do says:
Whoa, this is one of the best reviews I've read.

Posted on Mar 23, 2012 12:56:21 PM PDT
This online debate between you two rather proves Johnson's case.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 28, 2012 3:28:46 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 28, 2012 3:32:03 PM PDT
"This online debate between you two rather proves Johnson's case."

I appreciate the compliment, but I think it's a bit of an over-extrapolation. Our online debate demonstrates that an intelligent discussion can he had with new technology. But then again, people had intelligent discussions before the internet ever existed. So I'm not seeing how one good internet discussion "proves" that new technology is making us smarter than we used to be.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 27, 2012 10:42:25 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 27, 2012 10:44:09 AM PDT
Scott T says:
This is a great review and I think you make some very good points. That said, I don't understand how you can claim IQ tests are not a good measure of intelligence and then turn around and imply the youth is less intelligent because they: (1) cannot make correct change or recite historical facts; (2) cannot explain anything at length without stammering and peppering their sentences with like's and you-know's; and (3) have short attention spans when watching TV.

While I think that the inability to make change is sad, it has nothing to do with intelligence, and as John said in his reply to your comment, it likely speaks more to the decline of education more than anything. The same can be said for the typical teen's inability to cite information regarding the Civil War or the Bill of Rights. From my personal, purely anecdotal experience, many, if not most, teens of today excel in other ways that I cannot even fathom. Simply put, having a different knowledge base and skill set from what was common in the past is not the same as being less skilled or less intelligent.

Your other two points that I noted above are irrelevant in my opinion. If Albert Einstein was a young man today and peppered his presentation of the general theory of relativity with "likes" and "you knows," it wouldn't reflect on his intelligence, only his inability to communicate eloquently (which likely resulted from his inability to escape the way he learned to talk from his friends). As for the short attention span while watching TV, I find it very difficult to link that to lack of intelligence in any way.

Disclaimer: I haven't read Everything Bad is Good for You. I'm merely commenting on your review.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2012 10:17:06 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 2, 2012 10:35:32 AM PDT
To Scott T:

While I do think it is more sportsmanlike to critique a review if the person has actually read the book, I appreciate the honest disclaimer. In fact, you made some good comments. I have to admit you make a good point in distinguishing between a)intelligence, i.e. innate ability and b) how well a person is utilizing and developing that intelligence. I probably was a bit sloppy and conflated those together. The latter is probably the more proper category for the criticisms I made, such as speech patterns and making change and knowing the Bill of Rights, etc. Perhaps I should have rephrased my review somewhat. I guess I'm not worried so much about innate intelligence, but more about culture and behavior. The experts may tell us IQ scores are rising, which might be for any number of reasons, e.g. better nutrition, etc. But in my own observation I feel I'm witnessing an awfully lot of dumbing down in the culture at large. (Furthermore, other hard measures, such as tests that measure more concrete abilities and subject mastery paint a less rosy picture.)

As for your point that if Mr. Einstein peppered his explanation of relativity with like's and you-know's it wouldn't detract from his brilliance, technically that might be correct. But I don't find such extreme, isolated extrapolations to be that informative. And yes, it could be argued reasonably that just because someone chooses to channel surf, in and of itself it doesn't prove he's less bright than anyone else. But I think that style of argument misses the big picture; it misses the broader context. When LOTS of people of certain generations consistently channel surf, can't make change, constantly say "like", etc. then that seems to me a reasonable sign that our culture is losing some intellectual rigor.

You said you're sure younger people are more adept at certain other abilities, but you didn't elaborate on it with any examples. I can think of a couple. They are better multitaskers, and they navigate modern technology better than older folks. If I'm having trouble setting up my new cell phone, I'll grab the nearest 15 year old for help. But on a gut personal level, I'm simply not as impressed with those skills as I am more traditional skills. If they could discuss some of the subtleties of the Bill of Rights, I'd be more won over. (Furthermore, some studies have shown that when people of any age mutilitask they really don't perform any of tasks as well as when they mono-task.)
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