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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter Paperback – May 2, 2006

3.7 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Johnson puts the much-maligned pastime of playing video games under the microscope and comes up with some startling conclusions concerning the intellectual value and cognitive demands of this pop-culture activity. He argues that it isn't the content of today's games that engages the mind and makes one smarter; rather, it is their ever-increasing level of complexity and sophistication that challenges the mind to grow neurologically. One only comes to understand how to play a game by probing the complex interfaces within its levels to see what works as one goes along. Johnson observes that this is much like real life. He urges parents to sit down with their children and play in order to understand just how mentally challenging the games can be. He extends his argument to TV series such as The Sopranos, 24, Six Feet Under, and Law and Order, all of which, he argues, are multi-threaded and require viewers to think in order to follow the increasingly complex character and plot developments. While the book and its arguments endorsing the cognitive challenges of video games and other mass media are thought-provoking and somewhat convincing, Johnson is less successful in convincing readers that video games–especially the more violent ones–are good for a player's mental health. While the book should be of value for reports, don't be surprised if many students can't resist citing it the next time their parents ask why they haven't finished their homework.–Catherine Gilbride, Farifax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 254 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1 Reprint edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594481946
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594481949
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,322 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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