Book Review: Everything Bad is Good for You

"Everything Bad is Good for You" is bad for you. It's so bad, it might even be bad for your grandparents (who I'm sure are tough as nails), but it's especially bad for parents and twenty-somethings who are being fed the line: Pop culture is making you and your children smarter.

There are many competing definitions of 'smart'. One of those is IQ. Despite our diet of spoon-fed mass media, our national IQ has been going up collectively by about three points per decade (The Flynn affect). That's nothing to shake a stick at! Steven Johnson attributes this rise to the increased complexity of pop culture. He calls it the Sleeper Curve, after a famous scene from Woody Allen's Sleeper.

Now lets back up here a moment and look at that oh-so-hilarious moment in Allen's '73 Sleeper where Miles Monroe (played by Allen himself) awakes in the year 2173 and is told that tobacco, fat, and chocolate are in fact good for him and wasn't it quite silly of the 20th century to have gotten it so bass-ackwards. Audience chuckles, plot moves on.

Johnson may have picked the wrong movie and the wrong scene to pose an analogy to his thesis. Allen wrote a satire, and Johnson has now set himself up for the notorious potential of an equivalent satire, set in the year 2205, where a recently thawed Johnson asked where all the books, theater, and higher math have gone. Oh, laugh the amused future crynogenicists: that is soooo 20th century. Here we only have video games and Survivor and Simpsons reruns. Simple satire that proves my point: it's only funny if it's ridiculously wrong!

On the book again. Johnson makes the claim that video games and pop culture are increasing in complexity, and thereby training our brains to be clued in to solving complex logical systems. Thus, we're getting smarter. QED. High-balls anyone? Unfortunately, he drags this out for 200-odd pages, well beyond the confines of his limited data and very limited thesis. Listening to this guy drone on easily cost me an IQ point or two.

Well, if you enjoy pop culture, this book is a handy defense to all the TV-trashing literary snobs out there (like me :-). Just hold this book in front of you like wooden cross and cry out, "Get behind me, Satan!" Then you can go home safely to your cave and settle in with The Sopranos, The West Wing, or Survivor, or what have you, comforted that you are engaging in 'intellectual' activity.

Johnson's thesis falls flat in two major areas. The first, video games may make us smarter, but they don't necessarily make us better. (Disclaimer: I play video games and enjoy them quite a lot. They are escapism, not brain food) Thus, they're not 'good' for us. The second is the false notion that the rise in character complexity of the TGIF line-up is evidence of a more sophisticated culture.

He cites the Simpsons and Sopranos as cases-in-point. Both require extensive knowledge of pop culture (especially in the former) and the capacity to follow complex relationship ties between the characters (especially in the latter).

Earth to Johnson (and I'm purposely peppering my review with pop culture references to prove a point), this isn't novel! Nor is it a sign of higher complexity. cabaret theatre, anyone? Any Chekov play? Hell, any Russian novel for that matter? Jane Austin, Jonathan Swift, the list goes on and on. These popular theatre and novelists relied heavily on pop culture and a complex cast of characters. People in Victorian England or bawdy turn-of-the-century America, or revolutionary Russia, or impovished pre-industrial Ireland, didn't have trouble grasping the intricate relationships and devilishly clever satire and puns that saturated these works. It's an insult to our ancestors (hell, to all of humanity) to posit that we are somehow special today because we can follow the plot of a Sopranos episode.

To single out the Simpsons (a great show, so don't take this as disparaging. The show is brilliant satire), the pop culture references certainly rise in complexity, but they did so with the rise of globalization, not with video game technology. As the information gap between people lessened, making a jab at a somewhat obscure national figure becomes easier. In the olden days, we called this cabaret, where the pop culture references were terribly local. If you didn't live in that burough, you weren't gonna get the joke about the butcher's daughter's mole on her left cheek. But since we're inundated now with 24-hour news and lowest-common-denominator infotainment, we can, as a nation, laugh collectively at Monica's Blue Dress (a scandal that 100 years ago would have been confined to DC).

What skills actually make you fit to compete and work in the this modern world? Seriously. Is it the ability to rescue Zelda from a fiendishly corrupt wizard? Or memorizing Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy? In-depth knowledge of computers and their programming? The ability to write a novel? design a pipeline? lay cement? solve third-order differential equations?

Intelligence and its role in modern fitness is complex, to be sure, and none of the above makes any single person smarter than another. But most certainly, the skills acquired to play Ultima online don't make you a better acountant, or knowing who Tony offed this week don't help you with city planning. Hell, playing SimCity doesn't actually help you with city planning!

What we do for fun (even if it is HARD, as Johnson asserts) and what we do for work don't necessarily correlate. I'll conclude with a personal anecdote. In High School, I counted among my friends lots of different folks: gamers, athletes, band geeks, nerds, you name it. Those who went on to successful adult careers (accounts, lawyers, engineers, i.e. not fry chef) were the ones who excelled in traditional academia: math, science, literature. There was no correlation between these folks and those who played D&D or SimCity. Some did, some didn't. Games and TV are fun diversions, reveling our innate desire for escapism, and they are certainly worthwhile, but it isn't making us 'smarter', except in the small imagination Steven Johnson.


At 3/19/06, 11:45 AM, Blogger Les said...

Thank you for this analysis. I haven't read the book because the people who like it use arguments that annoy me. They seem to boil down to things are better because they are now! The most recent thing must be the best thing.

Mozart's music was considered terribly difficult and somewhat inaccessible when it was written. Was that because we're smarter than his original audiences? No, it's because the standard musical lexicon changed to reflect his growing popularity and the growing popularity of more complicated music. There are medieval musics that are very difficult for a modern listener. It doesn't mean we're smarter or they were smarter, just that we're starting from different cultural locations.

At 3/20/06, 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

IT's funny he took a simple joke from Woody's movie and turned it around. Yeah I would beg to differ that video games make one smarter, and what about all the impatience going on now? Anyways, well I can mark this off my list.



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