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Everything Bad is Good for You August 19, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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If you haven’t heard of it before, give Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You a read. It’s a book about popular culture or, as the subtitle suggests, “How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter”.

This effect is what Johnson refers to as the Sleeper Curve, which arises because of the increasing complexity of popular culture. This complexity extends beyond the fact that today’s media is awash with gritty realism or tackles subjects previously considered taboo: rather, it is inherent to the fact that popular culture becomes more and more interactive and engaging. From one-trick ponies like Pong and Pac-Man, video games like World of Warcraft or Ultima Online create open-ended storylines and immerse players in worlds requiring them to become “productive” members of virtual societies and thus truly live alternate lives. Television shows and movies also have evolved from the time when they would offer no more than “least objectionable content” and linear plots in order to attract an audience by not offending public sensibilities. Instead, their modern counterparts boast of “most repeatable content” that encourage multiple viewing and are replete with interwoven storylines that seldom get resolved after a single episode. All these point to a paradigm shift in the very nature of popular media: whereas these would previously ask viewers to “sit back and relax”, today they encourage the audience to “lean forward” and get involved.

Naturally, in the course of his discussion Johnson cannot help but single out some types of popular media to make his point, and he tackles some better than others. For instance, his views on reality television come across as a bit of a stretch, while his ideas concerning film are much more insightful. By and large, the true gem is his insight on video games. As an example:

“Start with the basics: far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. 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. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way.”

Amen to that.

What gives credence to Johnson’s discussion is the balance he strives to provide throughout the book. Contrary to what it might seem, the book is not meant to sing the praises of popular culture; rather, it is meant to allay fears that popular culture has little redeeming value as it races to the bottom to keep viewers’ attention. Indeed, what allows Johnson to develop his argument – for better or worse – is that he acknowledges and takes as given the fact that much of the content behind today’s popular culture leaves a lot to be desired.

Which is the point, really. In making the case for the value of popular culture, the book drives home how much potential today’s media can have with the right content. That alone makes the book worth reading, and then some.

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