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

3.7 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Though the research behind Johnson’s theories proves interesting, most critics found a few quirks in the construction of its delivery. Driven by a fervent desire to prove that today’s media are more beneficial to the human mind than they are damaging, Johnson, author of several books on science and technology (see Mind Wide Open, **** May/June 2004), fails to adequately define his agenda other than showcasing his research. Though his prose is captivating and his enthusiasm infectious, Johnson does not muster enough evidence to prove that today’s games and television shows help one’s mind; and yet, in his defense, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence proving him wrong. Either way, Everything Bad Is Good for You is a creative, flawed look at a society where the term "reality" refers to television rather than, um, reality.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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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 (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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