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Everything Bad Is Good For You
(How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter)

by Steven Johnson

Reviewed by Mary E. Ladd

February 6, 2006

Time Magazine tipped me off recently about some guy who had written a book defending pop culture. A braniac at that! So, I felt I had to check it out. I need all the rationalizations I can get for watching reruns of Strangers with Candy on DVD. The braniac is Steven Johnson, author of the other nerdy texts such as Mind Wide Open: Your Brain & the Neuroscience of Every Day Life ; and Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities & Software . He's also a technology columnist or contributor to Discover , Slate and The New York Times Magazine , and a contributing editor for Wired . Okay, you have to be smart to be swimming with those chaps.but ants, cities and software? Ay Carumba! If he's a master rationalizer, then he's a whip-smart one. Odds are, he's smarter than you, and your anti-TV rants won't be able to compete. Check your worldview at the door.

I, myself, have always hated video games, crossword puzzles, and word games - mostly because after sweating over them, I never feel I have something tangible to show for all my hard work (besides nerdy satisfaction) and because they're always so freakin' hard, especially for a right-brainiac such as myself who thinks more naturally with metaphors and images.

Johnson agrees, "The thing you almost never hear in mainstream coverage (criticism) is that games are fiendishly sometimes maddeningly hard." Which is why Johnson disagrees with the current argument that electronic games are dumbing down our youth. Instead, he asserts, television, movies, and video games are making our brains work harder today than they were required to work 10, 20, and 30 years ago. And we're better off for it.

Johnson dismisses the modern slacker theory that claims kids are basically zoning out when they play video games. "Why would our brains seek atrophy?" he asks. "The neurologized appetites of our brain demand progress.We are a problem solving species .(and our) minds compulsively ruminate on problems. Otherwise Pong would still more popular than Myst. The cheapest thrill doesn't win out in the end. The smartest thrill does."

Johnson is not claiming modern TV, movies, and video games work as pieces of art. And here right-brainers will find this difficult to swallow: Johnson's argument has nothing to do with you. This is about left-brain smarts: puzzles and stuff.not art. Right-brainers already have math aversion.even for word problems. And Johnson admits there's been a decline in general reading; but as he points out, there's been a decline in everything (CD buying, movie watching, poker nites) due to increased Internet usage. Johnson admits that the best medium for not only quality literature, but a good old-fashioned sustained argument is still the book, which is why he's put this argument in its form.

The Studies

Johnson breaks down the data on our evolving smarts and claims that "yesterday's braniac is today's simpleton" judging by the IQ numbers. In 40 years, we've gained 13.8 IQ pts on the average score. He eliminates the conditions of environment, familiarity with tests, diet, and quality education (he says US education test scores are actually declining). He does, however, define what IQ testing actually measures - problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, and special logic. He admits visual tests eliminate the class and culture differences in historic IQ testing and asserts this is why kids who play the visual video game Tetris kids now kick ass on visual IQ measures, consistently showing that gamers outperform non-gamers on these culturally-fair IQ tests. He also claims there is no scientific evidence of reduced attention spans in gamers.

Television & Movies

Aside from computer games, the bulk of the book is devoted to discussing television, another much maligned entertainment form. Johnson traces the intellectual complexity of drama programs as they evolve from simple structures like Dragnet to layered and sub-textural shows like The Sopranos or 24 . Shows thirty and forty years ago involved one single plot line and a decisive conclusion. Shows today contain "densely interwoven plotlines" with many distinct threads and "fuzzy borders from previous episodes." Even comedies contain many more layers of jokes these days and are dependent on references from previous episodes and obscure cultural events. On a quantitive level, there is far more information per scene in these television shows.

Johnson also singles out movies like Memento - movies that force you to figure out narrative riddles and reorient your perspective. Even children's movies are more complex: Mary Poppins , he states, has seven unique personalities to track; Finding Nemo has 20.

Johnson maintains that the worst of today is more challenging and complicated than the worst of yesterday. At least Joe Millionaire sparked debate over the dinner table. Battle of the Network Stars did not. Johnson calls The Apprentice "pure gold" compared to Who's The Boss .

Johnson also defends the cream-of-the-crop reality shows as a kind of social chess. He points out that it's not our desire to see other humans humiliated that leads us to debate character strategies over the water cooler. We love to play along. Our couch-side commentary and online blogging show that we are cognitively more engaged with this modern form of entertainment. Unlike The Dukes of Hazzard, where you couldn't play along; you simply zoned out in front of it.

One weak point in Johnson's analysis of television involves his critiques of political campaigns run and determined by television coverage. Johnson's argument here seems a weak rationalization at best. He claims television is beneficial in political debate in that it establishes the Emotional IQ of our candidates. In the meantime, he minimizes the effects of the "Oprahtization of Politics" - every issue is softened and we've stopped listening to arguments and tracking down voting records because we have no time/room after all our TV watching. The same argument that he makes for long sustained arguments needing the form of a book still applies here. He does not make the same case for political information on television and thus downplays the scary effects of lazy-voting based on information from attack ads, poorly designed televised debates, and dogmatic, iconic image-making.

Riddles & Games

Johnson's best, most compelling argument defends computer games. We've come a long way from Pong to the Sims series. He states, "The violent games may generate the most outrage, but the games that people reliably line up to buy are the ones that require the most thinking," games requiring systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and old fashioned patience.

Because I'm weak in all these skills, I've never liked computer games. Often I'm completely disoriented and have no idea what the game wants of me. I often give up in frustration. After all, I'm a right-brained sort of person and my left-brain has atrophied over the years. But the lessons learned in games can extrapolate to other problem solving events in your life, from maneuvering for a promotion to maintaining long-term love relationships. You can't exit the room you're stuck in by making the same old moves over and over. It's a crucial life lesson learned from computer games.

These are different skills than learned from straight-forward self-help, how-to, or lessons-in-literature. They require you to actively decide from options, to do something, to risk something. And often you have to "go back to square one," refurbish your skills, explore. Many times, you don't feel like you're getting anywhere. Your time in a game becomes an exercise in trial and error, moving forward and then finding you're back where you started, sometimes tumbling upon a lucky clue. So you pick up skills and work on strategies. On a larger level, you learn that life is not about progress; it's about progressing.

Johnson says, "the dirty little secret is how much time you spend not having fun." You spend a lot of time being stuck and often you work through your dilemmas all day, sometimes dreaming about them. According to Johnson, "who wants to escape to a world that irritates you 90% of the time?" He reminds us that if these games weren't so hard, game guides wouldn't be a cottage industry.

Unlike a novel, it's not the subject character itself or the texture of the environment that has real meaning. Because the subject is you and "the way you're thinking about the game." You wouldn't critique mathematical word problems for their poetic language and character development.

Unlike music, right-brained emotions are not accessed. This is a left-brained activity. In these games, we "learn how to think, weigh evidence, analyze situations, consult long-term goals, and then decide." And even unlike Chess (where the rules are clear from the onset), in computer games you learn by playing, "The first puzzle is to figure out the end goal." Much like relationships.

According to Johnson, players are also learning the basic scientific method in a 4-part process:

    1. Probe - explore and engage with the new game
    2. Hypothesize - reflect upon what you've seen
    3. Reprobe - find out how far you get with your new hypothesis
    4. Rethink - review your results

To complicate matters, layers of games often face you with simultaneous objectives nested in a hierarchical way. All of these need to be prioritized and categorized. Johnson defines the term "Telescoping" as "managing long term objectives while focusing on immediate problems."

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, Johnson is a proponent of moderation in everything, although he does admit obsession often leads to expertise. He does remind us that you can gain confidence from wrestling with mental challenges and "sticking it out."

Above all, as far as pop culture is concerned, we are not in race to the bottom, nor have we evolved into innate slackers. As he says, our brains will happily gravitate to new, every more sophisticated forms of entertainment. Otherwise, we'd all still be playing paddle-ball with glee.

Read about Steven Johnson

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What bad-for-you-pop culture pursuits are making you smarter?



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