Book 7: Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Johnson
Title: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter
Author: Steven Johnson
Page Count: 211 (250 with Notes)
F/NF: Non Fiction
Genre: Social science
Conventional wisdom tells us that popular culture – movies, TV shows, video games, and the Internet – are creating a culture of mindless morons with tiny attention spans. The nicest thing anyone can say about video games is that they improve hand-eye coordination. Johnson takes this argument and turns it completely on its head. He argues that the skills people learn while playing video games and following all the different plot and relationship threads in television shows actually help make people smarter.
I found this book in a used bookstore last year and finally found the time to read it. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while. His argument in support of video games is one that I already agreed with. Having failed at most of the video games I’ve tried to play over the years (Portal and Portal 2 being the only ones I’ve ever played all the way through), I already knew that video games require much more work than conventional wisdom seems to suggest.
The part of his argument that I was most skeptical about going into this reading was the part about reality television. When I think of reality TV, I think of shows like Keeping up the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. Neither is mentioned in this book, but I have reasons to believe that both are the types of shows that he would consider actual junk. His argument is not that all TV is good for us but that we should reconsider the criteria that we use to judge what makes TV useful. He says (and I agree) that we should be focused less on the content of TV and more on the cognitive thinking it forces us to do while we watch them. One of the examples he uses is that we should watch Survivor (which helps to raise our emotional intelligence) instead of Fear Factor.
Are there shows that have no real value to society? Absolutely. Should people spend all their time playing video games and ignoring the rest of the world? Of course not. His argument is not that we should tune out society and focus on games, nor is that all shows on TV will make us more intelligent. He simply says that we should reconsider how we judge shows and games and remind ourselves that games/shows are getting more complex as the years go on, and that that complexity is what is helping to make the mass population better at problem solving and pattern recognition (among other skills).
My only problem with this book is that he dismisses the idea that the rise of television has decreased unattractive people’s chances of winning a position in politics. The idea doesn’t seem to bother him that much, but it’s one that really irritates me. Just because someone’s fat or unattractive doesn’t mean that he or she would make a bad leader. I would have listed this as a fault of current television, but he seems to think of it as a minor side effect that actually works as a positive factor most of the time.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. For anyone who already thinks that pop culture is a great thing, this book will provide them with studies and other forms of persuasion to make their arguments stronger. For anyone who thinks that pop culture is making everyone dumber, this book should make them reconsider some of their assumptions and maybe not think of pop culture as such a terrifying force in today’s society.