Sunday, January 24, 2010

Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You

I just recently finished, and was quite heartened by, Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, a piece of cultural analysis that came out a few years ago. The book is essentially one long, well-formed, cogent argument on one single issue: that popular culture—video games and television primarily—is not, as the common opinion has it, making us into a nation of dullards and easily distracted simpletons, but is in fact making us smarter.


Johnson's argument is actually fairly simple, and boils down to the twin ideas of complexity and engagement: pop culture products are becoming more complex, forcing viewers/readers/players to pay more and closer attention. But rather than these complicated narratives being the high-brow entertainment, they're the prime-time hits that everyone is talking about; that is to say, their complexity is not driving away the audience but drawing them in. Shows like 24 and Lost force the audience to keep track of dozens of characters and plotlines, and yet they're the hottest shows around.

The same applies to video games: Pong, Pac-Man, and Tetris may have been state-of-the-art once, but compared to today's games, they're ridiculously simple. The controls are far more complicated, the stories are richer and deeper, and they often force the player to balance short-term and long-term strategic thinking. The worlds they create are also far richer than they used to be: you can spend weeks playing Grand Theft Auto IV without completing any of the main storyline.

Johnson emphasizes the importance of the Internet in this cultural revolution: without the ability to discuss the complexities, the hidden nuances of pop culture with fans from across the globe, the secrets buried within these shows and games would go unnoticed. There are thousands of bulletin boards and forums devoted to discussing the latest twists of Lost, and Johnson points out that not only do fans voluntarily surf through this enormous sea of information to understand the show, they even enjoy doing so.

If anything, I think Johnson actually understates the effects of the Internet in the development of these shows, and in the development of pop culture in general. I listen to several podcasts about comics, and one of the things that older comic creators keep saying is that they never knew how big of an audience they had. Fans would occasionally write in letters, but apart from that there was no contact between author and audience. Many creators felt as if they were working in a vacuum, sending their works out into a world that didn't care or even notice. But with the Internet, fans can tell creators exactly what they think—for better or worse. Comics get a brief mention in Johnson's book, which concentrates more on television and video games, but I think his arguments apply just as well to their increasing complexity over the past twenty years or more—certainly since Alan Moore's Watchmen.

In any case, it's a fine read, and rather quick: you can grasp the basics of his argument in a few minutes, but Johnson's explorations of the possible causes and the probable effects on our neural structures are fascinating and deserve a thorough reading.

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