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December 06, 2005

Dumbing Down or Dumbing Up?Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter - Steven Johnson

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter
by Steven Johnson
Pp. 300. Harmondsworth: Penguin (Allen Lane), 2005
Hardback, 10

Poor maligned Dr Pangloss (or rather, I suppose, poor maligned Leibniz, cruelly and unfairly pinned by Voltaire with the formulated phrase that will damn his subtle philosophy as idiotic optimism for all time.) "Panglossian" is one of those tags that are always pejorative. For a critic, it is an easy, glib word to dismiss the optimistic.

Few books published this year seem as Panglossian as Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You. (Perhaps the Social Affairs Unit's own Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful may be its main rival on this score).

Its blurb, its promotional materials (such as an article in Wired magazine whose strapline advised "stop reading the great authors and start playing Grand Theft Auto") suggest a sunny picture of moral uplift through computer gaming and watching reality TV, something analogous to a healthy diet turning out to be one of ice-cream and jelly.

How refreshing to find, for instance, that the last ten pages of the book are mainly taken up with an impassioned defence of reading. Indeed, the Wired article's strapline (which was cited in the New Criterion's pasting) seriously misrepresents the book. Johnson is careful to tell us, repeatedly, that he does not suggest that Heart of Darkness is inferior to Grand Theft Auto, that we should stop reading the great authors.

Johnson's preface sums up his essential thesis:

This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing: that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years. Where most commentators see a race to the bottom and a dumbing down "an increasingly infantilised society", in George Will's words I see a progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year.
Johnson begins with the most reviled genre of popular culture; computer games. Before reading the book, I would have assumed that one of Johnson's points would have been the well documented benefits for hand-eye-co-ordination derived from computer gaming. Johnson, however, is rightly contemptuous of hand-eye-co-ordination as a particularly great boon. It is not the ability to quickly slaughter your virtual opponents but the cognitive demands that the best games make on their players that count.

Johnson is right to observe that the likes of Quake (which the Columbine killers were apparently devotees of) are not representative of either computer gaming in general or the really successful titles. The massive sellers of computer gaming are not blast-'em-ups that require nothing but a quick trigger finger but complex simulations of worlds with their own inner logic and structure. For Johnson, the gamers' practice of testing these worlds, of progressively pushing their physics to the limit, is not merely analogous to the scientific method; it is the scientific method.

Computer gaming provides not instant gratification but delayed gratification. Almost any semi-serious gamer will end up doing a series of repetitive tasks for a greater good. The enormously popular strategy games require the rapid assimilation of basic, and rarely Panglossian, economic theory. Johnson has an optimistic view of the desires of the populace; indeed, he is surely right to note the snobbery inherent in the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist left's view of the masses as passive consumers of trash culture unless protected from themselves.

Television, too, although the most passive of mediums, has improved greatly in terms of cognitive demands. From the simple plots of Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch to the complex, interlapping threads of The Sopranos and ER today's television drama makes far more demands on the viewer. Another example is television comedy Seinfeld and The Simpsons are replete not merely with references to highbrow culture, but with intratextual references (to use the unlovely jargon) that further prove the cognitive complexity of watching. Johnson's paradigmatic example is the Seinfeld episode "The Betrayal", directly based on Pinter's play. The scenes are in reverse chronological order, thus the punchlines are to jokes the viewers have not yet heard. Using techniques that were avant garde thirty years before, Seinfeld was an enormously popular show that continues to make tens of millions for its creators in syndication.

For Johnson, reality TV is trash. But the comparison is not with Wagner or Conrad, but with the trash of yesteryear. Reality TV, even the worst, is much more cognitively demanding than the likes of The Price is Right. Reality TV makes "Monday morning quarterbacks" (the Irish version is "hurler on the ditch" is there an English equivalent?) of its viewers, as they try to second-guess the strategies and internal dynamics of the group.

Johnson is at his least convincing trying to persuade us that television is, in fact, a medium which allows one to learn important social skills. He discusses something called an "Autism Quotient" a measure of how well-developed one's "theory of mind" is, theory of mind being the ability to imagine what others may be feeling or thinking and argues that all those hours watching EastEnders or Neighbours are honing one's empathetic abilities.

Johnson delves into the murky world of internet fan sites devoted to TV shows to illustrate his point. The analyses of The Apprentice he reproduces may be poorly spelled and ungrammatical, nevertheless they exhibit a level of analysis and engagement one simply couldn't have with I Love Lucy. The complexity and self-referentiality of today's television shows may be driven to some degree by commercial considerations. The real money these days is in syndication rights and DVD sales, and making your shows "meatier" in the sense of more cognitively demanding is one way of ensuring the stickiness that leads to repeated viewing.

In a book I expected to be full of absurdities, there is only one outright bizarre passage, in which Johnson tried to claim, contra the claims of Neil Postman amongst others, that television's deleterious effects on politics are not so deleterious after all. Here Johnson over-reaches:

So what we're getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia, it's crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential President, information we had almost no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus.

Reading the transcript of the Lincoln-Douglas debates certainly conveyed the agility of both men's minds, and the ideological differences that separated them. But I suspect they conveyed almost no information about how either man would run a cabinet meeting, or what kind of loyalty they inspired in their followers, or how they would resolve an internal dispute. Thirty minutes on a talk show, on the other hand, might well convey all that information because our brains are so adept at picking up those emotional cues.

This is a fancy way of putting Wilde's dictum that only a very superficial person doesn't judge by appearances. To those who observed that Nixon largely lost the Nixon-Kennedy debates on television (radio listeners and readers of the transcripts felt Nixon had won) for purely cosmetic reasons, Johnson replies, well, wasn't Nixon proved shifty and untrustworthy in the end? To which it could be replied that JFK was no saint and perhaps simply a more successful liar than Nixon.

What basis is there to Johnson's optimism? Essentially, his wager is based on the Flynn effect. James Flynn is a philosopher and civil-rights activist who, despite not having professional training in statistics or intelligence testing, decided to try and refute the work of Arthur Jensen. Jensen had published studies purporting to show a gap separate from differences attributable to educational attainment or socio-economic status between white and black people's IQ scores. When he examined military records, he found a dramatic increase in blacks' IQ scores throughout the century. Not only that, but whites' scores were also improving, at nearly the same rate. Because IQ tests are normalised so the average person gets a score of 100, every few years the IQ mavens were adjusting their tests, thereby gradually and unconsciously increasing the difficulty of the tests.

What underlay this increase? Johnson dismisses improved nutritional or educational standards as an explanation, or increased familiarity with the tests (which, for a variety of reasons, are administered far less than they used to be). To those who charge that IQ tests are culture-specific anyway, he replies that tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices and other non-verbal, non-numerical tests that purport at any rate to measure g or general intelligence that are showing the greatest increase. The skills involved in Raven's Progressive Matrices are exactly those of Tetris, the wildly popular computer game-cum-puzzle.

The New Criterion reviewer presented a whole series of educational statistics that are much more worrying than the Flynn Effect. Johnson acknowledges some of this; for instance that American schoolchildren's knowledge of history and geography is grievously deficient despite the popularity of Sim City. He acknowledges, also, that the printed word is the best medium for communicating complex ideas, or any message of any length. Despite the fact that the internet is mainly used for verbal communication email, instant messaging, blogging are all based firmly on the primacy of logos it is verbal communication in small, usually shallow bursts. As an aside, one wonders if any work has been done on the length of a written piece posted on the internet, beyond which attention wanders and one really has to hit CTRL P to get any further benefit. I would hazard a guess that it is around the length of the average piece on this site.

It is interesting that, the Flynn effect aside, Johnson does not have a huge amount of hard statistical data to back up his claims. There's a study that shows that regular computer gamers are, actually, more rather than less socially adept.

The crucial flaw is that to make his arguments, Johnson explicitly takes content out of the equation. It makes no difference, he argues, that the plot of the game Zelda, to give one of many possible examples, is a frankly silly confection of fantasy tropes and motifs. What matters is the cognitive work involved.

Content is the eight hundred pound gorilla which Johnson has magicked out of the room. Cognitive demands are all very well, but who really thinks that they are the measure of all things? Computer games, as Johnson admits, are all very well for creating worlds one can submerge oneself in, but not much good at storytelling beyond the most elemental and pre-adolescent level. His book is thought-provoking and far less blindly Panglossian than one would expect, nevertheless it has a sort of hole in its soul. Far more than the statistical bones one could no doubt pick with Johnson, this is the real flaw.

If Johnson is animated by anything, it is opposition to the George Will quote alluded to above which is one of the books epigraphs. In full, it reads:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilised society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice", adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainment and the kinds of entertainment they are absorbed in video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.
Johnson feels, I think, that he has fairly comprehensively demolished Will's claim by the end of the book:
It's crucial that we abandon the Brave New World scenario where mindless entertainment always wins out over more challenging fare, that we do away once and for all with George Will's vision of an "increasingly infantilised society".
But he has not argued with Will's point. He has simply suggested persuasively and entertainingly that modern popular culture is more cognitively challenging than that of other years. In some ways the book illustrates Will's point: we now have immensely more sophisticated delivery of well, whatever you want to dub the content of modern popular culture. Johnson does not really have much to say on the "moral philosophy" of society. Performance on Raven's Progressive Matrices in not perhaps the measure of all things.

For all that, it is a stimulating, provoking book which is entertainingly written in the deceptively colloquial style of writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks. I recommend it to all readers of the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, even (especially?) those who hate the very thought of it.

One final caveat. Dr Dalrymple of this parish has often written of the oft-disastrous trickling down of antinominian ideas among intellectuals to the general population, often losing whatever subtlety and perhaps utility they may have possessed to begin with. One fears that the debased version of Johnson's thesis is what will get out there, that people who will never read the book will understand from the press coverage that someone has proved that, after all, a mental diet of hot fudge and ice-cream is a healthy one. Along with the Will quote, Johnson uses as an epigraph the following exchange from Woody Allen's Sleeper:

Scientist A: "Has he asked for anything special?"

Scientist B: "Yes, why, for breakfast he requested something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk".

Scientist A: "Oh, yes, those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties".

Scientist B: "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?"

Scientist A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).


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Commenting on the first paragraph only:

Whatever the merits of Leibniz's optimism, it influenced some of the greatest mathematicians to take steps in the variational calculus and the principle of least action, leading to the Lagrangians and Hamiltonians that underpin so much of nineteenth-century physics, and what developed later. What did Voltaire ever produce that was actually productive?

I can imagine Leibniz's statement that "this is the best of all possible worlds" cast in modern terms as a science fiction story where people go back in time and tinker with history, with short term benefits that always - eventually - turn out for the worse. What if Louis XIV had acted on Leibniz's suggestion to divert his imperial ambitions away from Europe towards North Africa and conquer Egypt (instead of which Rex Plexi Solaris went on to pursue his fanatical hatred of the Dutch)?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 8, 2005 09:00 AM
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Anyone who likes 'Seinfeld' is ok with me...

Posted by: Square Eyes at December 8, 2005 02:43 PM
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