Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter Paperback – May 2, 2006
Frequently Bought Together
Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought
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 foodthe 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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. And what's more, popular media has been trending towards increased complexity for the past half-century.
The economics driving these developments relate to a shift from "least objectionable" programming into "most repeatable" programming, rewarding those games/movies/narratives that embrace ambiguity, those that require the entertained to take a more active and exploratory role in comprehension, and those that reward the inquisitively entertained with yet more ambiguity to resolve upon the next viewing. This neuroeconomic "device" is perfectly designed to hijack the pleasure system by establishing an expectation of reward. It is precisely this type of cognition which has been shown to modulate dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, providing the fix craved by pack-a-day smokers, ice-cream fanatics, and gambling addicts alike.
And while the violence illustrated in games like Grand Theft Auto may seem to provide the cognitive nutrition equivalent to gambling, Johnson emphasizes (to use McLuhan's phrase) that the "medium is the message." It is not the content so much as the method of delivery that determines its most important effects: that of rewarding critical thinking and emphasizing interactivity, whether purely cognitive (as in complex narratives) or integrating motor skills as well (as in games). Whatever the detrimental effects of prime-time depravity might be, the positive effect of this new interactive media trend takes the form of "the Sleeper Curve": a 3-point increase in average IQ per year for each of the past 100 years. To put this change in perspective, consider this: a person placing in the 90th percentile of IQ in 1920 would place in the bottom third of a IQ test in 2000.
"Everything Bad Is Good For You" is an incredibly provocative piece of cultural criticism, and while light on experimental evidence for causal relationships between IQ increases and changes in popular culture, it more than makes up for that shortcoming by illuminating ways in which this evidence might be attained. The book's best moments call to mind the optimism of the early 90s for engineering an interactive techno-topia, but these moments are thankfully tempered with a rigorously historical perspective and a firm grounding in relevant neuroscience. The book should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in communication theory, and is highly recommended for those with an interest in integrating neuroscientific principles with entertainment and education.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A transparent attempt at a best seller by pandering to the average blue collar dummy.Read more
Start by allowing this experiment 1 month (3 months) best!Read more