Steven Johnson is a very intelligent man who frittered away much of his youth on TV, movies and video games. You kids out there would be wise to do the same. In Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead Books; 238 pages), the social critic and technologist (Mind Wide Open) makes a thought-provoking argument that today's allegedly vacuous media are, well, thought provoking.
First, we should clarify what Johnson means by "good." Unlike many critics of media--especially media aimed at kids--Johnson is not using the term in its moral or social sense. He's not arguing whether reality TV humiliates people, video games promote violence or movies glorify sex. Instead he wants to know whether it gives the brain a good "cognitive workout." For Johnson, pop culture is like algebra class. Whether you remember the quadratic equation as an adult is less important than whether you learned the analytic thought processes that solving equations teaches. Likewise, for Johnson, what matters about pop culture is not its message but whether it forces you to engage in complex thought, analysis and reasoning.
His conclusion: it does, and shockingly well, an impression that struck him one rainy day when he taught his nephew, 7, the video game SimCity and soon found the kid making suggestions about industrial tax rates. Video games, Johnson notes, impel us to learn because playing them means not just following rules but also discovering what the rules are. And these rules can be staggeringly complicated. Johnson unpacks the nested objectives of just one segment of a Zelda video game with enough detail to bury the canard that it is "passive" entertainment.
That argument, Johnson emphasizes, "does not mean that Survivor will someday be viewed as our Heart of Darkness or Finding Nemo our Moby-Dick." Rather, apples to apples, today's pop media are far more challenging than yesterday's. The Sopranos' interlaced plots make Hill Street Blues look like a Barney video. Nemo tracks many more characters and story lines than did Bambi. And supposedly mindless shows like The Apprentice are graduate seminars compared with '70s trash like The Love Boat, requiring us to parse webs of relationships, motives and strategies. In today's media, says Johnson, "even the crap has improved."
Today's pop culture, he writes, builds on rules established by earlier pop culture (as, say, The Simpsons complicated the sitcom genre). And new formats such as dvds make audiences more receptive to complex creations that reward repeat viewing or playing. A traditionalist could say that new media are simply good at teaching kids to use new media, but Johnson argues persuasively that they also force kids "to think like grownups: analyzing complex social networks, managing resources, tracking subtle narrative intertwinings, recognizing long-term patterns."