Monday, March 22, 2010

Everything Bad is Good For You

by Steven Johnson

I read this book on the recommendation of Stephanie at Stark Raving Bibliophile ( you can read her review here). I actually read this book almost a year ago and have recommened it to so many people (our 2009 Salutitorian quoted it in his speech!) I can't believe I have not reviewed it yet.

The premise of the book is that TV, video games and movies of current pop culture are not as bad for us as some people make them out to be. Johnson argues that pop culture grows more sophisticated each year and congnitively challenges our brains, ultimately making us smarter.

"Popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in new and powerful ways."

Video Games -
The video games of today are much more difficult that in years past -- Pong, Pacman, Space Invaders - all these were reflex games - mash the buttons and something happens. There were no complicated tricks, tips or cheats necessary. Contrast that with Grand Theft Auto, EverQuest and Ultima that require a 200 page guidebook just to be successful, not to mention the hours of trial and error needed to figure out how to advance. Also, newer games force participants to make, build or maintain something. Civilization, Zoo Tycoon and all the Sims games revolve around the building and responsible upkeep of either a civiliation, city or amusement park with animals. The problem solving skills and creativity required rival anything teachers can create in a classroom, not to mention the variety of decision-making skills required.

"No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's decision making apparatus in the same way"

Even television has gotten smarter. Beginning with Hill Street Blues in 1981 - television shows introduce more characters, multiple plot lines and references to current and historical events. West Wing, Lost, Seinfeld, ER, the Sopranos, even the Simpsons stretch our thinking much more than Dragnet, Mary Tyler Moore or Three's Company ever did. In order to understand and "get" all the references in current television shows, the viewer must process hidden clues, make inferences, plot line leaps, current events, historical figures, past episodes and literary references. Call me crazy, but these are the same strategies my high school AP English teacher taught me to use when trying to read "real" literature.

Film -
Like television shows, films have gotten more complex, forcing viewers to think in order to follow and understand the plot lines. Johnson compares Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings has 3 times as many characters with signficant plot lines than Star Wars. It requires the viewer, on the fly, to follow many more narrative threads and background information. The biggest change is among children's films. Compare Bambi and Finding Nemo and you will see Nemo requires children to keep up with over 20 characters and their plot lines in several locations.

"Where the child's mind is concerned, each viewing is training him or her to hold those multiple threads in consciousness, a kind of mental calisthenics."

A new genre of film has developed-- the mind-bender, a film designed specifically to disorient the viewer, mess with their heads. Think Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix and Magnolia. Each of these films mentally challenges the viewer in some way.

Does this mean all pop culture is good for us? NO -- there is still plenty of mind-numbing junk out there. There is still the question of violence, sex and morality in general. There is still the question of how much TV, movies and video games is too much. What Everything Bad is Good For You is trying to point out is that pop culture can (and is) making us smarter than it has in the past.

"The first test screening of the Hill Street Blues pilot in May 1980 brought complaints from the viewers that the show was too complicated... Fast forward 20 years... audiences happily embrace that complexity."

Is this just a way of making us feel better about letting our kids watch TV and play video games for hours? I don't think so. My son is a much better basketball player after playing NCAA Hoops on XBox 360. He understands the game and what is allowed and what is not. I believe most of what he learned he could not learn by playing in the driveway. Watching both my kids discuss the open-ended ending to a movie and discussing the various ways the plot could have ended proves to me that they are interacting more with a children's movie that we did at their age. I think Johnson is on to something and everything bad just might be good for us (in moderation).

Rating - A


  1. Those last two words of your post are the key: in moderation. Everything in moderation is good. Even chocolate! :)

  2. Great post! I have also noticed that we learn a lot about the skills that are used in "literary criticism" through T.V. and movies. I think so much of this is new to us, and we grew up having our parents warn us -- while we were glued to The Flintstones and The Brady Bunch -- that T.V. was rotting our brains. Adopting new ways of thinking is hard!