Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
by Steven Johnson
Don't Kill Your Television
A review by Farhad Manjoo
Pop culture, like fast food, gets a bad rap. It's perfectly understandable: Because
we consume so much of the stuff -- we watch so much TV, pack away so many fries
-- and because the consumption is so intimate, it's natural to look to our indulgence
as the cause of all that ails us. Let's face it, we Americans are fat and lazy
and simple-minded; we yell a lot and we've got short attention spans and we're
violent and promiscuous and godless; and when we're not putting horndogs into
office we're electing dumb guys who start too many wars and can't balance the
budget and ... you know what I mean? You are what you eat. The output follows
from the input. When you look around and all you see is Ronald McDonald and Ryan
Seacrest, it seems natural to conclude that junk food and junk culture are responsible
for a large chunk of the mess we're in.
The other day, though, in an unbelievably delicious turn of events, the government
reported that people who are overweight face a lower risk of death than folks
who are thin. While the news didn't exactly exonerate junk food, it was a fitting
prelude to the publication of Steven Johnson's new polemic Everything Bad
Is Good for You, which argues that what we think of as junk food for the
mind -- video games, TV shows, movies and much of what one finds online -- is
not actually junk at all. In this intriguing volume, Johnson marshals the findings
of brain scientists and psychologists to examine the culture in which we swim,
and he shows that contrary to what many of us assume, mass media is becoming
more sophisticated all the time. The media, he says, shouldn't be fingered as
the source of all our problems. Ryan Seacrest is no villain. Instead, TV, DVDs,
video games and computers are making us smarter every day.
"For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows
a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards,"
Johnson writes. "But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture
is getting more intellectually demanding, not less." Johnson labels the
trend "the Sleeper Curve," after the 1973 Woody Allen film that jokes
that in the future, more advanced societies will come to understand the nutritional
benefits of deep fat, cream pies and hot fudge. Indeed, at first, Johnson's
argument does sound as shocking as if your doctor had advised you to eat more
donuts and, for God's sake, to try and stay away from spinach. But Johnson is
a forceful writer, and he makes a good case; his book is an elegant work of
argumentation, the kind in which the author anticipates your silent challenges
to his ideas and hospitably tucks you in, quickly bringing you around to his
In making his case for pop culture, Johnson, who was a co-founder of the pioneering
(and now-defunct) Web journal Feed, draws on research from his last book, Mind
Wide Open, which probed the mysteries of how our brains function. Johnson's
primary method of analyzing media involves a concept he calls "cognitive labor."
Instead of judging the value of a certain book, video game or movie by looking
at its content -- at the snappy dialogue, or the cool graphics, or the objectives
of the game -- Johnson says that we should instead examine "the kind of thinking
you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience." Probed this way, the
virtues of today's video games and TV shows become readily apparent, and the
fact that people aren't reading long-form literature as much as they used to
looks less than dire. "By almost all standards we use to measure reading's cognitive
benefits -- attention, memory, following threads, and so on -- the non-literary
popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty
years," Johnson says. Moreover, non-literary media like video games, TV and
the movies are also "honing different mental skills that are just as
important as the ones exercised by reading books."
Johnson adds that he's not offering a mere hypothesis for how video games and
TV shows may affect our brains -- there's proof, he says, that society is getting
smarter due to the media it consumes. In most developed countries, including
the United States, IQs have been rising over the past half-century, a statistic
that of course stands in stark contrast to the caricature of modern American
idiocy. Johnson attributes intelligence gains to the increasing sophistication
of our media, and writes that, in particular, mass media is helping us -- especially
children -- learn how to deal with complex technical systems. Kids today, he
points out, often master electronic devices in ways that their parents can't
comprehend. They do this because their brains have been trained to understand
complexity through video games and through TV; mass media, he says, prepares
children for the increased difficulty that tomorrow's world will surely offer,
and it does so in a way that reading a book simply cannot do.
Still, at times Johnson protests too much, setting up what look like straw
men defenders of old media so that he can expound on the greatness of the new.
It's true that many oldsters continue to say a lot of silly things about the
current media environment. Johnson quotes Steve Allen, George Will, the "Dr.
Spock" child-care books and the Parents Television Council, all of whom
think of modern media in the way former FCC chairman Newton Minow famously described
the television landscape of the early 1960s -- as a "vast wasteland."
(For good measure, Johnson could also have taken a stab at opportunistic politicians
like Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan, who's trying to
pass a state ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, or misguided
liberals like Kalle Lasn, who wants vigilantes to shut off your TV.)
Yet, I suspect that most of Johnson's audience probably already gets it. I
was tickled by much of what Johnson illustrates about how video games and TV
affect your brain, and some of it surprised me, but I wasn't really skeptical
in the first place. Most people my age -- kids who grew up at the altar of Nintendo
and Seinfeld -- probably feel the same way. And this is to Johnson's
credit: To young people, his take on media feels intuitively right. It's clear
what he means when he says TV makes you think, and that video games require
your brain. Indeed, if you've ever played a video game, Johnson pretty much
has you at hello.
That reading books is good for children is the most treasured notion in society's
cabinet of received child-rearing wisdom, Johnson notes. Yet it's a pretty well
established fact that kids today don't read as much as kids of yesterday --
at least, they're not reading books. (Few studies, Johnson points out, have
taken note of the explosion of reading prompted by electronic media like the
Web.) What are these children doing? They're playing video games. And other
than praising games for building a kid's "hand-eye coordination,"
video games are, say child experts like Dr. Spock, a "colossal waste of
time," leading us down the path to hell.
What's best about Johnson's section arguing that video games are just as good
for you as books are is his tone: He's breezy and funny, and for a while you
forget that he's proposing the kind of idea that in earlier times may have ended
with a sip of hemlock. As I say, I think most people will be with him from the
start: Video games are better than we think? Sure, I'll buy that. But one still
feels itchy under the collar when he starts comparing something as sacred as
the bound book to the sacrilege that is Grand Theft Auto. And when, in
a short, satirical passage, he points out all the shortcomings of books in the
same unfair way most people describe the shortcomings of video games, I'm sure
he drives more than a few readers to go out in search of some hemlock. A sample:
"Perhaps the most dangerous property of ... books is that they follow a fixed
linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion -- you simply
sit back and have the story dictated to you ... This risks instilling a general
passivity in our children, making them feel as if they're powerless to change
their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a
Of course, Johnson makes clear, he loves books (they provide, for starters,
his livelihood). Still, his criticism of books' lack of interactivity -- even
if it's offered as a purposefully specious point -- is valid. Books may promote
a wide range of mental exercises, and a certain book may send your mind skittering
in a dozen euphoric directions, but there are things that a book simply will
not, cannot, do. Books don't let you explore beyond the narrative. Their scenery
is set, and what's there is all that's there. You may have liked to have visited
some of Gatsby's neighbors, but you can't. Books also don't ask you to make
decisions, and in a larger sense don't require you to participate. You sit back
and watch a book unfold before you. The book's possibilities are limited; what
will happen is what's written on the next page. Read it a thousand times, still
Rabbit always runs.
So this should be plain: Because they're interactive, video games promote certain
mental functions that books do not. Specifically, video games exercise your
brain's capacity to understand complex situations. That's because in most video
games, the rules, and sometimes the objectives, aren't explicit. You fall into
the sleazy urban landscape of "Grand Theft Auto" with no real idea
of what you're supposed to do. Indeed, Johnson points out, much of the action
in playing any video game is finding out how to play the game -- determining
how your character moves, seeing which weapons do what, testing the physics
of the place. If you fall from a building, does your character get hurt? What
happens if you open this door? What kind of strategy can you plan to beat the
monster on Level 3? The kind of probing gamers employ to determine what's going
on in such simulated worlds, Johnson says, is very similar to the kind of probing
scientists use to understand the natural world. Kids playing video games, in
other words, are "learning the basic procedure of the scientific method."
Because TV is more fun, Johnson's section on television is more engaging than
his examination of video games, but its revelations also feel a bit more obvious.
His main point -- you can see an extended version of it in this New York Times
Magazine excerpt -- is that most modern TV shows exercise your brain in ways
that old TV shows never dared. Today's shows, whether dramas or comedies, are
multithreaded -- several subplots occur at the same time, and in the best shows
(like The Sopranos or The West Wing) the subplots often run into
each other (there is one popular exception: Law & Order.). Modern
shows -- including, of course, reality shows -- also feature many more characters;
only a handful of regulars graced Dallas every week, but there are dozens
of people in "24."
Today's TV shows are also far more willing to keep the viewer in the dark about
what's going on in a certain scene, or to include allusions to other art forms,
or previous years' episodes. Medical jargon has been written into just about
every scene on ER specifically to keep you on your toes about what's
happening. "Nearly every extended sequence in Seinfeld or The Simpsons
... will contain a joke that only makes sense if the viewer fills in supplementary
information -- information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer," Johnson
writes. "If you've never seen the 'Mulva' episode, or the name 'Art Vandelay'
means nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them occurring
years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated." What
all this amounts to, Johnson says, is work for your brain. Watching TV is not
a passive exercise. When you're watching one of today's popular shows, even
something as nominally silly as Desperate Housewives, you're exercising
your brain -- you're learning how to make sense of a complex narrative, you're
learning how to navigate social networks, you're learning (through reality TV)
about the intricacies of social intelligence, and a great deal more.
What I wonder, though, is, Doesn't everyone know that today's TV is better
than yesterday's TV? It's here that I think Johnson's too focused on straw men.
Like most Americans, I've spent enough time watching television to have earned
several advanced degrees in the subject. Yes, TV today is clogged with more
sex and violence than TV of yesterday, but for all that, is there anyone in
America who doesn't believe that on average, what we've seen on TV in the last
decade has been more intricate, more complex and just plain smarter than the
shows of the 1980s or the 1970s? Of course, there are exceptions; everyone can
think of a great show from the 1970s that beats a middling show of today. (The
Jeffersons kicks According to Jim's ass.) But I'm talking about apples-to-apples
comparisons: Is there anyone who prefers Hill Street Blues, which as
Johnson points out was one of the best dramas of the 1980s, to The West Wing
or ER or The Sopranos? I imagine only the very nostalgic would
say they do.
In the same way, I don't know how anyone couldn't see that Seinfeld
is smarter than Cheers, or that Survivor is more arresting than
Family Feud, or that American Idol clobbers Star Search.
When I say that the new shows are better, I mean in the same ways that Johnson
argues -- not based on content, but on brain work. Today's shows tease your
brain in ways that the old shows do not, and you are aware of the difference.
We may not have plotted out the shows' mechanism as well as Johnson has -- we
can't say precisely why ER is completely different from St. Elsewhere
-- but to me, at least, the difference is clear enough that Johnson's Sleeper
Curve is unsurprising.
As I see it, then, the most interesting question about Johnson's theory is
not whether it's accurate. It's why it's happening -- why is media getting smarter,
and why are we flocking to media that actually makes us smarter? Johnson examines
the question at some length, and he fingers two usual suspects: technology (the
VCR, TiVo, DVDs, ever more powerful game systems) and economics (the increasing
importance of the syndication market). But I like the third part of his answer
best -- our media's getting smarter, he says, because the brain craves intelligent
The dynamic is that of a feedback loop: Today's media is smarter because yesterday's
media made us smart to begin with. Dragnet prepares you for Starsky
and Hutch, which prepares you for Hill Street Blues, which begets
ER, The West Wing and The Sopranos. If we'd seen The
West Wing in the 1980s, we wouldn't have known what to do with it. Indeed,
many people didn't know what to do with Hill Street Blues when it debuted,
in the same way that all path-breaking media confound viewers at first. Few
people understood the early years of Seinfeld, and, today, only a small
crew can appreciate the genius of Arrested Development.
The amazing thing -- and the most hopeful thing in Johnson's book, and about
culture in general -- is that the mind challenges itself to understand what's
just out of its reach. After three years of watching Seinfeld the nation
more or less collectively began to understand the thing. In no time, then, the
show lodged itself into the cultural landscape. No longer, after that, could
you remark on someone's sexuality without adding, "Not that there's anything
wrong with that."
And, whatever else you may have heard, this tells us, once and for all, that
we are not stupid.