Everything Bad Is Good for You: A Review

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This
is a groundbreaking book by a clever man who goes too far.

Steven
Johnson is the cheerleading captain for new entertainment technology.
A regular columnist about emerging technology and the bestselling
author of Mind
Wide Open
and other books, Johnson has used his understanding
of the mind and popular culture to make two novel arguments:

1.
The popular culture is not “dumbing down.” Rather, it is getting
more sophisticated.

2.
This increasingly-sophisticated culture is making us smarter.

The
first argument, he makes convincingly. I never would have believed
it, if it weren’t for Johnson, but he leaves no doubt that today’s
entertainment is far more sophisticated than, say, the entertainment
in the 1970s.

The
second argument, however, fails almost as decisively as the first
argument succeeds.

Both
arguments revolve around a thing that Johnson calls “the Sleeper
Curve,” a learning trend in which entertainment gets increasingly
sophisticated and silently strengthens our cognitive abilities without
us realizing it.

With
respect to pop culture’s increasing sophistication, Johnson addresses
four types of modern entertainment: video games, TV shows, movies,
Internet. His observation about these media is that, unlike traditional
pop entertainment, they require their audience to follow closely
and to participate.

TV
shows, for instance, traditionally offered only one narrative, along
with maybe one comical subplot: two things for the viewer to follow,
plus four or five characters. With Hill Street Blues, TV
shows started offering much more. A typical Hill Street Blues
episode would weave nine or so different story lines into the narrative,
plus many primary and secondary characters.

After
Hill Street Blues, the number of nighttime dramas employing
these devices swelled: St. Elsewhere, ER,
thirtysomething, Twin
Peaks
, NYPD
Blue
, The
West Wing
, The
Sopranos
. Perhaps the most sophisticated show to date, The
Sopranos routinely weaves together 12 or more story lines with
a dizzying number of primary characters, plus its narrative requires
the viewer to keep track of events from previous episodes.

Johnson
makes similar observations about the other entertainment technology
(especially today’s complex videogames), and he makes his case well:
today’s entertainment is smarter (and better) than yesteryear’s.

But
then he claims this increasing sophistication is actually making
us smarter.

His
hypothesis basically boils down to this: All this stuff requires
us to work and concentrate so much more than Starsky
and Hutch
, therefore, it must be making us smarter.

Although
he presents a little bit of evidence for this, the evidence simply
doesn’t add up to his conclusion. He basically takes a bunch of
facts about increasing trends in IQ’s and two or three vague studies,
throws them in the air, and says, “Look, that’s proof that all this
sophistication is making us smarter.”

I
can sympathize with Johnson, to an extent. He makes such a convincing
case that the pop culture has gotten more sophisticated, and we’re
spending so much time using it, it would be a shame for it not to
amount to something.

But
he has no evidence that it does. He spends the most time talking
about IQ scores, which have been increasing lately. How lately?
Over the course of the last 100 years! The new cultural sophistication,
which by Johnson’s account started in the early 1980s, can’t account
for the IQ increases prior to the early 1980s. To get around this,
he says IQ’s have been increasing at a sharper rate in recent years.
His support: “average scores in the Netherlands . . . increased
8 points between 1972 and 1982.”

This
piece of evidence is so inapt that I feel like I’m beating up a
straw man: Hill Street Blues was an American show that started
in 1981. The sophisticated video games Johnson lauds didn't begin
to get produced until the late 1970s (Atari’s Adventure debuted
in 1978).

To
be blunt, Johnson’s facts in support of this second argument are
absolutely horrible.

What
he needs is a test case: find someone who didn’t get the benefit
of all this pop culture sophistication from the early 1980s to the
early 2000s and see what happened to his brain.

By
Johnson’s account (implied at several places), such a test case
person couldn’t appreciate today’s TV shows. Not having the benefit
of the Sleeper Curve, such a person would be baffled by the shows
and turn them off.

Well,
I have such a test case.

Me.

Which
is why I decided to write this review.

I
watched some Hill Street Blues episodes back in the early
1980s, but after that, I didn’t watch another nighttime drama or
night time soap opera for twenty years, with the exception of L.A.
Law (which I watched for the first two seasons, until 1988).
It wasn’t intentional. Maybe I was drinking too much, or carousing
too much, or studying too much, or having too many babies. I also
didn’t own a TV from 1988 to 1991. But the important fact is, I
didn’t watch any of those shows.

Until
2003. That year, my older brother told me that I’d enjoy The
Sopranos, and loaned me the first season on DVD.

I
watched it, a little reluctantly since I simply didn’t watch much
TV.

Guess
what? I loved it, and I have subsequently watched all the other
seasons. I loved the layered plots, the character development, and
the interplay of mundane and evil in Tony Soprano’s life.

But
according to Johnson, I should have been “disoriented” by all the
sophistication. I should have had a difficult time following all
those complex threads.

That
didn’t happen.

In
fact, I liked The Sopranos so much that I started reading
on-line articles about it.

Again
guess what? The writers were basically making the same points I
appreciated when watching the episode. I never read an article and
thought, “Boy, I had no idea all that was happening.”

And
(just one more time) again guess what? I didn’t have to concentrate
very hard while watching it. In fact, I watched many of the shows
after coming home from the bar with a bunch of beer in me. Yet I
followed along just fine and was able to pick up the narrative easily
when I started watching sober a few days later.

My
Sopranos experience simply couldn’t have been possible, if
Johnson’s theory that the popular culture is making us smarter is
accurate. I hadn’t indulged the pop culture (I also eschewed videogames
after age 18) and therefore hadn’t benefited from the Sleeper Curve.

If
Johnson’s hypothesis is correct, I should’ve been stuck with the
mental television rigor of a lad fed with Happy
Days
and The
Brady Bunch
, but I wasn’t.

I
realize this autobiographical anecdote isn’t the greatest evidence.

But
it’s a helluva lot better than the evidence offered in this book,
and until I see something better – much better – I’ll
persist in my belief that TV and related media don't make us smarter.

May
31, 2005

Eric
Scheske [send him mail]
publishes The
Daily Eudemon
. He is a freelance writer and a Contributing
Editor of Godspy. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Marie, and
their seven children.

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