Thriving On "Trash"


How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

By Steven Johnson

Riverhead Books -- 238pp -- $23.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A provocative argument that popular culture actually makes people smarter.

The Bad The book overstates its case--and ignores some of the worst aspects of pop culture.

The Bottom Line Makes a strong case that video games, TV, etc. have evolved to a higher level.

Violence-laden video games such as Grand Theft Auto are more popular than ever. The Internet, while a great education tool, makes it easy for kids to gamble, gawk at sleaze, and get into every kind of trouble. And TV -- littered with tired sitcoms, degrading reality shows, and "news" that often resembles entertainment or paid-for propaganda -- seems to be getting dumber all the time.

Against this backdrop comes Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, with a provocative thesis that popular culture actually makes us smarter. While the idea that watching Paris Hilton and her ilk increases your intelligence sounds like ivory-tower balderdash, this volume is packed with contrarian insights backed by the author's deep understanding of high tech and low culture. A former English PhD candidate and co-founder of the groundbreaking Webzine Feed, Johnson is most successful in demonstrating that popular culture has grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past 30 years. But Everything Bad Is Good for You overstates its case that we're smarter as a result. Worse, Johnson soft-pedals or ignores some of the main drawbacks of pop culture.

Johnson's book contrasts sharply with the work of older cultural critics such as the late Neil Postman, who highlights the dark side of techno-culture. In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argued that television is like a modern-day version of soma, the opiate in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World that degrades rational argument and demeans political discourse. In 1993, Postman took a step down the Luddite path with Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, a polemic that depicts technology as a totalitarian force that destroys the soul.

By focusing on the positive aspects of technology and pop culture, Johnson is sort of an anti-Postman. He makes a strong case that video games, TV, and the Internet have all evolved to a point that they are challenging our minds in new and productive ways. For example, Johnson notes that games today not only improve hand-eye coordination but also are "fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard." They have become so complex that a cottage industry devoted to publishing game guides, or "walkthroughs," has exploded in recent years. "You didn't need 10 pages to explain the Pac-Man system, but 200 pages barely does justice to an expanding universe like Everquest or Ultima," he writes.

Johnson excels in describing how television has grown increasingly sophisticated -- and in demonstrating that the most successful shows have also been the most demanding of the viewer. The turning point, he says, came with the 1980s series Hill Street Blues and its multi-threaded narrative structure. Since then, many of the most successful and popular shows -- St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, The West Wing, The Sopranos, and Desperate Housewives -- all have followed a dozen or so distinct plot lines within each episode. Modern narratives also challenge our brains in another key way: The audience derives pleasure by "filling in" withheld information, as with the cryptic, rapid-fire dialogue on The West Wing.

The author's most novel contention is that the value of pop culture goes beyond the content of the product. Building on the work of media visionary Marshall McLuhan, he asserts that different media forms exercise different parts of the brain. Johnson terms this effect "collateral learning." For example, he says that games teach kids how make decisions. "Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize," he writes. Even reality TV can offer collateral knowledge -- because it tests our emotional intelligence, or our ability to assess and respond to other people's signals. Shows such as The Apprentice, he says, are in a sense "elaborately staged group psychology experiments."

To prove that pop culture is making us smarter, Johnson notes that IQs in most developed countries have been rising by three points per decade over the past century. Dismissing improvements in nutrition and education as possible causes, he asserts the change is due to the increasing complexity of culture. This seems too convenient. Some research has shown that declining birth rates, leading to more parental attention, and rising education levels help boost people's IQ scores. In 1910 only 13.5% of the adult U.S. population had completed high school; by 2002 the number hit 84%.

And what about the downside of gorging on techno-culture? There's less time for reading, playing outside, or socializing. Some teachers say kids are suffering from overstimulation, which stifles the imagination. Clearly, there are trade-offs from pop-culture gluttony, and Johnson downplays them to a fault. While pop culture may nourish aspects of our intelligence, it can degrade our senses of wonder and community and our ability to process information. Some bad things really are bad for you.

By Spencer E. Ante

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