Everything Bad Is Good for You

pat kane

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter’ is a non-fiction book written by American popular science author Steven Berlin Johnson.

Published in 2005, it is based upon Johnson’s theory that popular culture – in particular television shows and video games – has grown more complex and demanding over time and is improving the society within terms of intelligence and idea. The book’s claims, especially related to the proposed benefits of television, drew media attention.

It received mixed critical reviews. Johnson states that the goal of his book is to persuade readers ‘that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years.’ Johnson challenges the precept that pop culture has deteriorated. He derives the term ‘Sleeper Curve’ from the Woody Allen film ‘Sleeper,’ where ‘scientists from 2173 are astounded that twentieth-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge.’ He uses this to argue against contemporary perception of the deteriorating standards of pop culture, although Johnson is quick to point out that by no means does the Sleeper Curve imply that popular culture has become superior to traditional culture.

Johnson defends the value of modern pop culture. He argues that the appeal of video games is not through their (possibly violent or sexual) content, but rather through the fact that the ‘structure’ of the video games uniquely invites exploration and stimulates the reward centers of the brain. He asserts that television is a ‘brilliant medium’ for determining how skilled people are at understanding interpersonal connections, or their Autism Quotient (the higher a person’s emotional intelligence, the lower their ‘AQ’), and that reality shows in particular realistically display the complexity of ‘social network maps’ in human relations, where a group of people have complex and intertwined engagement.

Earlier television, Johnson says, simplified narrative and human relationships, while modern trends not only in reality shows but in ‘multiple threading’ in scripted programs such as ‘The Sopranos’ improve the audience’s cognitive skills. He suggests too that modern television and films have reduced the number of ‘flashing arrows,’ narrative clues to help the audience understand the plot, and require audiences to do more cognitive work paying attention to background detail and information if they wish to follow what they are viewing. Steven Johnson acknowledges that although the video game industry is growing, the literature on the subject is limited at best. Johnson offers several sources for information on ludology (study of games — not to be confused with game theory, the study of strategy): Ludology.org and seriousgames.org as well as the books ‘Got Game’ by John Beck and Mitchell Wade and ‘The Play Ethic’ by Pat Kane.

The book has received mixed critical reviews. Janet Maslin of ‘The New York Times’ was primarily negative, dismissing the book’s ‘facile argument’ and sparsity of hard evidence and claiming that ‘The reader rattles around within the book’s narrow universe and repeatedly bumps into the same thing: reiterations of Mr. Johnson’s one big idea.’ ‘Wired’ gave the book an overall positive review, but also suggested that the book is largely built around a straw man argument and thus ‘largely misses the point of the more valid critique of today’s pop culture.’ The Guardian found part of Johnson’s thesis — that some elements of pop culture have grown more complex — persuasive, but not the second claim that this greater complexity offers any tangible benefits for the public aside from preparing them to handle more complex pop culture; it criticized the shortage of hard science and the conclusions drawn from what science exists and also the application of literary theory to visual arts media.

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2 Comments to “Everything Bad Is Good for You”

  1. Yes.. but whatever bad is good for us is not the one we like :-((

  2. at last – someone who argues a case I want to believe!

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