Sunday, August 21, 2005

Book review(!): Steven Johnson - "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter"

Steven Johnson, according to the bio in his latest book, Everything Bad is Good For You, is a tech-guy (a contributing editor for Wired, he also writes a technology column in Discover magazine, and so on), which helps explain why he has a relatively more optimistic view of two of the current cultural bugaboos: the one -- i.e. video games -- being a much greater lightning rod for the other -- i.e. TV, and reality TV specifically. To summarize his main point: the various forms of popular entertainment, in particular video games and TV programs, have reached such complex levels that they're teaching us to think in more sophisticated ways than ever before, which, he contends, subverts the more common assertion that pop culture appeals to base values and offer little in the way of cultural sophistication. Unfortunately, most of his conclusions are questionable, though his observations are worth considering.

The deficiencies with his arguments are alluded to on a superficial glance through Everything Bad -- the book doesn't have numbered footnotes or endnotes, so it takes some lucky flipping back and forth to know when Johnson is citing a claim or data from another work. Worst of all, instead of supplying a bibliography or a works cited page, Johnson merely includes an appendix for further reading. Such a deviation from standard academic format raises the possibility that the book lacks argumentative rigor, which a more nuanced reading of the book will in fact reveal.

The more substantial shortcoming of Everything Bad is how Johnson almost entirely assigns the credit for rising IQ scores in the last 20 years to video games and TV. He structures his argument to set contemporary TV and video games against the TV and video games of 20 to 30 years prior. For example, he compares the "narrative complexity" of Dragnet with The Sopranos, which leads him to draw a fairly distinct line between the past and present of television. In opposing the contemporary against the past, Johnson establishes his argument on a fallacious binary. The past is the starting point upon which later complexity is based. As a result, rather than the polarized opposites that Johnson presents, the past and present exist on the same spectrum of narrative complexity. The formative days of a given medium lack generic conventions off of which to play and instead are more preoccupied with establishing those conventions. Once the conventions are in place, then the medium would see a progressive increase in complexity as more and more shows subvert, deviate from and play off of generic rules. (Of course, this rule applies more obviously to video games with ever-improving technology that allows for greater complexity.) Thus, instead of a change in intelligence and thinking, which, Johnson asserts, is the cause of the increase in IQ, a more probable alternative is the evolution of narrative conventions to explain growing narrative complexity.

More than just his arguments, one of the narrative elements that Johnson cites as evidence of rising narrative complexity -- that is, the proliferation of serial narratives during primetime -- is likewise suspect. Serials have been a popular form ever since the 19th century (see Roger Hagedorn, "Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation," Wide Angle, 10:4 (1988), pp. 4-12). From newspapers to radio to early films, whenever a relatively new medium needed to attract viewers on a long-term basis, its producers usually relied on serialism. Johnson blithely ignores the omnipresence of serial narratives and acts as though the recent trend of primetime serials is the first time such narratives have entered the imagination of the mainstream public. (For a more in-depth critique of Johnson's implication that complexity is equivalent to intelligence, see Allison McCracken's article in Flow TV, though I find McCracken's anti-patriarchal stance fails to go far enough in addressing Johnson's faulty assumptions.)

Of particular interest to me is Johnson's section on reality TV, though. His argument in favor of reality TV (it should be noted that he clearly thinks of it as a lower form, especially compared to his apparent favorites, The Sopranos, 24 and The West Wing) is that reality tv teaches the viewer emotional intelligence, such as reading someone's physical presentation to see if they deserve to win $1 million. As tenuous as this conclusion seems to me, I did find more useful the appeal of reward in his comments on video games. He writes that gamers derive pleasure from results gotten out of work put into a task. In reality tv, especially the competitive shows, the idea of reward functions in a similar way, albeit at a more vicarious level. (Johnson does allude to the vicarious thrills of reality tv.) One of the ongoing conceits of reality tv is that the contestants are real people little different from you or me, and that we could just as easily be the contestants on the show, so when they survive a challenge, we feel a similar if diluted thrill.

One caveat about this review: I'm working entirely from memory, so I might have gotten a few details wrong, in addition to overstating some of Johnson's mistakes.

Indie rating: Sleater-Kinney - "Entertain"

1 comment:

Tiffany said...

This book sounds interesting. It's certainly true that popular television shows have become far more complex than those of the past... this is just in my limited experience, of course. Also, shows like "Lost", "Carnivale", and certainly "Six Feet Under" have nearly Pynchon/Wallace-esque repetition, motif, and a strange post-modern/sarcastic/existentialist edgy-ness (if one is to use literary criticism to approach it), and the symbolism teeters on the Renoir/Godard/Lynch-esque (to attack it from a film theory angle). Ha... I know that many of these descriptive terms I am using are not words, but, as Homer says to Tony Hawk, "I like making up words, too!"