Friday, August 26, 2005

Book review: Everything Bad Is Good For You

Sitting by a lake in the woods near Yosemite, far from the nearest hotspot, might seem like and odd place to read a book extolling the merits of wired media and pop culture. But for a blog obsessed on-line junkie, it was the perfect setting. No web to distract me. No blogs to read or write. And my knee was killing me, so my usual routine of hiking, biking, and sports was out of the question. There was no choice but to settle down on the lawn at Camp Mather and dive in.

Everything Bad Is Good For You
How Toady's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

Steven Johnson has some very interesting things to say about Gaming, TV, and pop culture. He takes a very novel approach to challenging the commonly held assumption that pop culture is vapid, and TV and gaming are bad for you. Au contraire! He'll have us believe that the demands of modern high tech culture are making us smarter-that we are enriched and challenged by our media and our hobbies more than every before. As he postulates near the beginning of the book,

"The most debased forms of mass diversion - video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms - turn out to be nutritional after all. For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the "masses" want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less."

He traces an ambitious arc across this slender 200 page book, attempting to borrow from "economics, narrative theory, social network analysis, neuroscience" to make his point.

I'm here to heartily recommend that you run right out and give it a read. It's a fun, provocative, and engaging book that will change the way you think about the media and technology all around us. It is a very hopeful book that does a good job of skewering well-meaning critics of pop culture who just don't get it. I really wish everyone I work with at Leapfrog would read it.

I'm also here to say that he takes the ball and runs way past his blockers. He stretches a few pithy observations to the breaking point. It's only a 200-page summer best seller, not an academic text. There are many key assumptions underlying his argument and many interpretations that bear closer examination. He just does not have the room to elaborate or carefully substantiate many of his claims. Instead he gallops along at a lively clip, trying just a bit too hard to convince us that Grand Theft Auto is brain food.

Maybe his work will inspire others to write the more detailed analyses. Maybe he will inspire researchers to conduct the carefully designed studies and experiments that will prove or disprove his assertions. I'm sure their books will be a lot less interesting.

The book starts with his most cogent observations about video gaming. Johnson starts with careful target selection. He does not want to talk about the content or meaning of games. He rejects that analysis in favor of a more "systematic" approach. He sets out to identify how kids play games and why they play them. He examines a gamer's obsessive, immersive dive into the imaginative world of the game. The way a player gets into their role and probes and explores the game world is, as he notes, not often described. I've tried playing my kids' games, and I've watched them playing over the years. I'm no gamer but I can understand the allure. Johnson captures it in his description of the problems solving, the probing and telescoping, and the decision making required to map out an objective and do it.

He jumps into the neuroscience pool to explain how games are not an opiate, but a gin seng for the brain, offering heaping servings of cognitive nutrition. He lays it on a bit thick I'm not totally buying it when he uses the science to support the idea that content doesn't matter, that Zelda, GTA, Sims… offer the same rewards in proportion to the cognitive challenge overcome. That may be true at some level. But GTA is still not playing on our PS2.

I dug the way he uses Zelda, Windwalker as an example of a mental workout. Sam loves that game and has played it at length, so he was able to audit those sections of the book with me - he corroborated the details of the "pearl of Din" case study. Sam was most happy to help prove gaming is educational!

Next up after gaming comes TV. For me, this was a much harder pill to swallow.

I agree with a lot of what he was saying about the evolution of TV programming. Most of the examples he uses are shows I know well and watch frequently. It is true that good TV programming today is flowering and getting more and more interesting. Plots are more layered, interwoven and complex. Large casts of characters have more varied, intersecting "social networks." He shows how TV programming is changing and becoming more complex and more challenging - at least for the "cream of the crop" shows he cites as examples.

His deepest insight about TV concerns the economics of syndication. He shows how the change that comes when you design the programming to be seen over and over changes the creative game. Instead of 100 separate, self-contained 30 minute shows, you now have a 50 hour epic in 100 multi-layered installments. Instead of superficial pabulum that anyone can fully appreciate on the first viewing you have shows that are watched again and again. Technologies like cable, VHS, DVD and the web have changed the format for the better. It carries over into movies to. Instead of formulaic Disney fare for kids, you have food films like Finding Nemo or Shrek.

OK. Good point. I like those shows and movies he talks about.

But what about 80% or Nickelodeon? For that matter, what about any kids programming? "The Simpson's" or Pixar films are about as close as he gets. What about commercialism? Like MTV? Its also much harder to argue that content is not relevant in TV. Of course it is.

When he trots out Reality TV and tries to measure it on some "emotional intelligence" axis, I have to gag. There may be some redeeming qualities to shows like The Apprentice or Survivor. Or maybe not. But he claims to be comparing Bad TV of old with Bad TV of today, but I don't think he knows or cares to talk about the true bottom of the barrel today. It's not a pretty sight.

If I'm not buying the reality TV defense, you can be sure I wasn't about to be taken with his defense of TV on politics:

"So what we're getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia - its crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential president, information we had almost no access to until television came along and gave us the tight focus."

If only TV gave us any insight into any real personal traits of the candidates, or allowed us to be voyeurs observing the real people. No, we get none of that.. There is nothing unscripted or real on the campaign trail. Instead of emotional IQ we get Ann Coulter. Instead of authentic, strong individuals TV gives us an animatronic smirking chimp to lead us. Shudder.

What I really liked about this book was its basic optimism. Our culture is not debased. It's not just a race to the bottom. The kids are not mindless slackers after all. In fact, maybe all our children really are above average in Johnson's digital Lake Wobegon. Maybe we're actually getting smarter.

There is much in the book about the Flynn Effect, attempting to credit pop culture for making our IQs rise. I don't know if it's true. What do I know about the Flynn Effect? Nada. But it is nice to spend a few pages wondering why we're all getting smarter.

My bet would be to attribute this Flynn Effect to things like the end of child labor and post war nutrition. Especially since the gains have been strongest in the lower end of the IQ spectrum. Maybe being poor isn't as nasty as it used to be.

Or maybe Johnson is right and it's The Sopranos, Finding Nemo, Half Life, The Sims and all the rest of Pop Culture that's our brains' Wonder Bread.

Either way, the kid's all right. And gaming and TV are not rotting their brains. It's really good to get a dose of that point of view. "Everything Bad Is Good For You" dishes it up in delectable portions. I highly recommend it.


Steven Johnson said...

Hey, thanks for such a nice, thoughtful review of my book. You really got what I was trying to do with it -- I'm the first to admit that I was deliberately "running way past my blockers"; that's what cultural critics are useful for, as long they're held in check eventually by other research that looks into their claims more closely...

I really don't mean to overstate the benefits of watching a lot of TV; it's a medium that's constrained by a lot of things that you really ultimately can't get around, as complex as the shows are today... My catchphrase that I now use in talking about the book is: "games are making us smarter, and television is *getting* smarter." I think now, looking back, that I could have added another paragraph at the beginning of the TV chapter, sounding that note a little louder.

At any rate, I really enjoyed it, and appreciated all the kind words and close reading...

KC said...

Knock me over with a feather! I was not expecting this. Wow. I've had a grin plastered on my face all weekend.

And I thought it was way cool when Jen from "Breed em and weep" found my post about her blog.

I just love the way the web works...