Book Report: Everything Bad Is Good For You

everything-bad-is-good-for-you“So this is the landscape of the Sleeper Curve. Games that force us to probe and telescope. Television shows that require the mind to fill in the blanks, or exercise its emotional intelligence. Software that makes us sit forward, not lean back. But if the long-term trend in pop culture is toward increased complexity, is there any evidence that our brains are reflecting that change? If mass media is supplying an increasingly rigorous mental workout, is there any empirical data that shows our cognitive muscles growing in response? In a word: yes.” (Everything Bad Is Good For You)

Title: Everything Bad Is Good For You – How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

Author: Steven Johnson

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication Date: 2005

Origin: After reading Johnson’s How We Got to Now, I decided to read all of Johnson’s books…and I’ve now worked my way to this one.

Summary: Everything Bad is Good For You critically examines the widespread belief that modern pop culture and media are dumbing down society – or are reflective of a society that is dumbing itself down – and demonstrates that the opposite is true.

Johnson analyzes the media (games, movies, books, television shows) of yesteryear and compares to today’s versions, and thoroughly debunks the nostalgic myth that media of the past was high-quality. In fact, he shows older media to be almost comically simple (that’s what happens when you optimize for ‘least offensive content’) when compared to the intellectual demands of today’s.

Johnson terms this slow progression to more advanced and demanding media The Sleeper Curve:

“This is the Sleeper Curve: The most debased forms of mass diversion – video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms – turn out to be nutritional after all. For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest common-denominator standards, presumably because the ‘masses’ want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.” (p9)

Ultimately, it turns out that we’re OK. Our diversions are actually more intellectually demanding than the diversions of previous generations, and these demands lead to an overall rise in our cognitive capabilities.

My Take: I enjoyed Everything Bad is Good for You, although it did get me nostalgic for the first 11 or so seasons of The Simpsons.

Johnson’s arguments are well-presented, and as objective as possible despite the challenges of comparing past TV shows, movies, video games, etc. to those of the present. To do so effectively, he draws upon academic research and distills things down to their basic elements (e.g., number of characters, relationship between characters, information that is absent, concurrent plots, etc.).

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I particularly liked his arguments in favour of video games: that they teach and hone decision-making skills and strategic planning (but I mean real video games, not those crap apps that the kids these days play).

Read This Book If: …you need to restore a little bit of faith in the modern world.

Notes and Quotes:

  • I guess this is why I don’t ‘get’ Snapchat and the like, quoting Marshal McLuhan on p15: “The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.”
  • p18: “The intellectual nourishment of reading books is so deeply ingrained in our assumptions that it’s hard to contemplate a different viewpoint. But as McLuhan famously observed, the problem with judging new cultural systems on their own terms is that the presence of the recent past inevitably colors your vision of the emerging form, highlighting the flaws and imperfections.”

“The problem with judging new cultural systems on their own terms is that the presence of the recent past inevitably colors your vision of the emerging form, highlighting the flaws and imperfections.”

  • p41, on the benefits of video games and their distinction from other media: “Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way…if you peer inside the gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgments, some long-term strategies.”

“If you peer inside the gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgments, some long-term strategies.”

  • On television, p63: “So if we’re going to start tracking swear words and wardrobe malfunctions, we ought to at least include another line in the graph: one that charts the cognitive demands that televised narratives place on their viewers. That line, too, is trending upward at a dramatic rate.”
  • p63: “Narratives that require that their viewers fill in crucial elements take that complexity to a more demanding level. To follow the narrative, you aren’t just asked to remember. You’re asked to analyze. This is the difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent.”

“To follow the narrative, you aren’t just asked to remember. You’re asked to analyze. This is the difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent.”

  • Game of Thrones might have taken this to a new level, p72: “In 1981, you could weave together three major narratives and a half dozen supporting plots over the course of an hour on primetime, and cobble together enough of an audience to keep the show safe from cancellation. Today you can challenge the audience to follow a more complicated mix, and build a juggernaut in the process.”
  • p77, discussing complex shows that leave deliberate blanks: “Like those video games that force you to learn the rules while playing, part of the pleasure in these modern television narratives comes from the cognitive labour you’re forced to do filling in the details. IF the writers suddenly dropped a hoard of fishing arrows onto the set, the show would seem plodding and simplistic. The extra information would take the fun out of watching.”
  • p91: “What you see when you make these head-to-head comparison [across TV history] is that a rising tide of complexity has been lifting programming both at the bottom of the quality spectrum and at the top. This is the ultimate test of the Sleeper Curve theory: even the crap has improved.”
  • p99: “Part of this neglect stems from the age-old opposition between intelligence and emotion: intelligence is following a chess match or imparting a sophisticated rhetorical argument on a matter of public policy; emotions are the province of soap operas. But countless studies have demonstrated the pivotal role that emotional intelligence plays in seemingly high-minded arenas: business, law, politics. Any profession that involves regular interaction with other people will place a high premium on mind reading and emotional IQ.
  • p102, as any leader or manager should know: “To motivate and persuade you have to have an innate radar for other people’s mental states.”
  • Loved this part from p103, as it’s the first time that I’ve seen this interpretation: “That first Nixon-Kennedy debate has long been cited as the founding moment of the triumph of image over substance – among all those TV viewers who thought Nixon’s sweating and five o’clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy. But what if we’ve had it wrong about that debate? What if it wasn’t Nixon’s lack of makeup that troubled the TV watchers? After all, Nixon did turn out to be shifty and untrustworthy in the end. Perhaps all those voters who thought he had won after they heard the debate on the radio or read the transcript in the papers simply didn’t have access to the range of emotional information conveyed by television.”

“What if it wasn’t Nixon’s lack of makeup that troubled the TV watchers? After all, Nixon did turn out to be shifty and untrustworthy in the end.”

  • p136: “So this is the landscape of the Sleeper Curve. Games that force us to probe and telescope. Television shows that require the mind to fill in the blanks, or exercise its emotional intelligence. Software that makes us sit forward, not lean back. But if the long-term trend in pop culture is toward increased complexity, is there any evidence that our brains are reflecting that change? If mass media is supplying an increasingly rigorous mental workout, is there any empirical data that shows our cognitive muscles growing in response? In a word: yes.”
  • p167, speaking of the days before VCRs, DVRs, streaming, etc…frequent readers of this site will know that I love a good kick of perspective: “The change since then has been so profound that it’s hard to remember that television was a pure present-tense medium for half of its existence: what appeared on the screen flew past you, as irretrievable as real-world events. No wonder the networks were so afraid to challenge or confuse; if the show didn’t make complete sense the first time around, that was it. There were no second acts.”
  • Gotta remind myself of this every time I get annoyed by a new thing, p176: “Adapting to an ever-accelerating sequence of new technologies also trains the mind to explore and master complex systems.”

“Adapting to an ever-accelerating sequence of new technologies also trains the mind to explore and master complex systems.”

  • I feel like this part was written for all those folks who want to sensationalize and oversimplify the message, p199: “Believing in the Sleeper Curve does not mean that teachers or parents or role models have become obsolete. It does not mean that we should give up on reading and let our kids spend all their free time tethered to the Xbox. But it does mean that we should discard, once and for all, a number of easy assumptions we like to make about the state of modern society. The cultural race to the bottom is a myth; we do not live in a fallen state of cheap pleasures that pale beside the intellectual riches of yesterday. And we are not innate slackers, drawn inexorably to the least offensive and least complicated entertainment available. All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity. And by gravitating, they make the effect more pronounced.”
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