Everything Bad is Good for You Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Publisher: Riverhead
Year: 2005
Pages: 256

I don’t even know where to begin telling you all the things that are wrong with this book.

When I got it, I assumed that it would be the normal video-game-apologist fare, citing the studies that say video gaming sharpens hand-eye coordination and debunking the naysaying of twits like Hillary Clinton. Oh, how wrong I was.

Johnson’s tack—basically—is to claim that not only is ALL popular media more intelligent1, but that it’s actually making us smarter. By the end of the introduction, all I could think was “Oh boy…” There are three main issues that I think fundamentally flaw Johnson’s argument.

  1. He talks about “complexity” but not about intellectual merit
  2. He fails to adequately ascribe the “increasing” intelligence of the American viewer to the complication of popular media
  3. He relies on his audience to accept his a priori assertion that popular media is in fact more complicated than it used to be.

In the section about television, Johnson graphically portray’s the complexity of the average Sopranos episode to a show like “The Dukes of Hazard” [sic]. The former contains ten or twelve independent plotlines that interact with each other, as compared to the singular linear plot point of the latter. This, he insists, is indicative of the general trend—something he calls The Sleeper Curve—of increasing complexity and intelligence in television. Now, I will grant that The Sopranos involves considerably better writing than The Dukes of Hazzard, but Johnson never makes a case for why this changed, assuming that it must be audience demand. Even taking that part on faith, he never seems concerned at all with whether or not a show is good. He cites Survivor as a show about complex social relationships and moral issues, using terms not unlike the preceeding: anyone with any sense knows that Survivor is voyeuristic pabulum, the same as shows like The Real World. They appeal to the sensationalist in us that likes to gossip and gawk and gape at the frivolous social problems of people who sold their dignity for a chance at filthy lucre. “If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them to watch Survivor over Fear Factor” he says2. Big fucking difference.

Midway through, I was beginning to wonder if Johnson was ever going to get around to talking about the subtitle of his book—”How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter—and sure enough, the second part of the book throws a supposed upward trend in average intelligence against an ostensible upward trend in popular culture complexity and expects them to stick together. The precise sort of intelligence which Johnson claims we are exercising with popular culture—logic, multitasking, &c.—is something that our children don’t have, which is why American students rank so poorly in math and science. Johnson talks extensively about IQs, and we are expected to believe that Americans are innately smarter than they were half a century ago, but he is not convincing in the slightest, and fails to offer any support for his claim.

The book is full of little gold nuggets that make you wonder what this man was smoking. In one instance, he tries to defend the decline of print media by invoking the text-based internet:

Millions of people spend much of their day staring at words on a screen: browsing the Web, reading e-mail, chatting with friends, posting a new entry to one of those 8 million blogs. E-mail conversations or Web-based analyses of The Apprentice are not the same as literary novels, of course, but they are equally text-driven.

What? That’s your excuse? “wut up? n2mh” is excusable because it’s made of text? It’s okay that it takes a heavily-merchandised franchise like Harry Potter to get kids to pick up a book, because they read e-mail? How stupid is this guy? That’s even worse than saying, “No, I’ve never read Verne’s 20’000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I did see the Disney movie!”

And speaking of movies, that brings me to my final point, which is that readers are supposed to suspend their disbelief and agree that pop culture has indeed gotten more complex. I think it’s true that the changing global political and cultural climate has changed media, as have advances in technology, but I don’t think that the average TV show’s formula has changed. In the ’50s and 60s (Johnson’s childhood), the top shows on television were things like I Love Lucy, $64’000 Question, and Dallas. Are they really so different from Friends, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, or CSI? Or, god help us, American Idol? Of course not. Pointing to HBO dramas is using a niche market as proof of a general trend, and it’s disingenuous. I think the change in “complexity” has more to do with upping the ante and the evolving context of media than it has to do with increasing intelligence.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this book was awful. I couldn’t produce a more odious thing out of my backside. Avoid it at all costs, unless you really need someone to justify your continued viewership of the latest piece of offal on television.

  1. Except, noticeably, for pop music, which he doesn’t touch upon at all. I am hardly surprised[]
  2. pg. 194[]
§1110 · April 30, 2006 · Tags: ·

1 Comment to “Everything Bad is Good for You”

  1. Jeff says:

    So…you didn’t like it?

    I saw him on The Daily Show when the book first came out. Video games I’ll give him, but as soon as he mentioned Survivor I couldn’t take him seriously any longer.

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