Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Johnson: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

Everyone knows scolds who prattle on about the ways that pop culture makes us dumb and complacent, but does anyone take them seriously? As the argument goes, a soul busy wandering through video games and ogling television shows is an impoverished soul. That's more debatable than the corollary related to intelligence, which supposedly erodes with every click and flicker of machines poised to drain the brain.


Everything Bad Is Good For You sets out to expose the hollowness of such arguments: Author Steven Johnson proffers his idea of the "Sleeper Curve"—a phenomenon named after futuristic characters in Woody Allen's Sleeper who puzzle over old claims that cream pies and hot fudge are unhealthy. In Everything, that line gets drawn around video games and TV shows. For all the talk of pop culture dumbing down and growing increasingly debased, Johnson asserts, it's actually growing more complex in ways that make us sharper. To show how, Johnson guides tours through the thought processes commanded by fantasy games like Ultima Online and TV shows like The Sopranos and 24. It's a good argument made in great detail, mapped out with lists and charts of decision-affecting contingencies and intricate narrative structures.

But how necessary it is remains debatable, especially once Everything Bad settles into simply restating its already convincing premise. Johnson touches on some interesting points, citing studies on the generational rise of IQ scores and the success of complex stories once thought to be poison among TV programmers and movie producers. The book lacks the theoretical and scientific gravitas Johnson offered in his probing studies Emergence and Mind Wide Open, though. It's essentially a treatment of an argument that goes without saying, unless the reader is, say, Andy Rooney or George Will.

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