Everything Bad is Good for You

This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in a while. Here, let me repeat that for truth:

This book. Brilliant. Totally.

But let’s back up a second and I’ll explain why. In Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson describes a phenomenon he calls “the sleeper curve.” Basically, it holds that the vessels of pop culture –mass media like TV shows, video games, and the Internet in particular– have grown steadily more complex and cognitively demanding over the last 30 years. What’s brilliant about Johnson’s arguments is that he divorces them from discussions about the content of the media as well as its artistic or moralistic merit. Sure, the artistic value of The Legend of Zelda is nill when you compare it to literary classics (save the princess AGAIN? are you kidding me?), but Johnson notes that that’s the wrong way to look at it. Instead, you have to look a the cognitive demands of the game and how it encourages the player to learn absurdly complex rules and follow them along while using cognitive functions relating to spatial intelligence, memory, and logical reasoning. What’s more, Johnson actually makes a pretty good case for how media like video games and television are, on average, actually making us smarter instead of dumbing us down.

This isn’t really new, either. “Everything Bad” opens with a discussion of how the author would use every ounce of brainpower he possessed to master dice-based baseball simulations with tables of tightly nested statistics and rules that make tax forms look like child’s play. And it’s a short mental hop from those games to something that resonated with me: Dungeons and Dragons. My mother always told me that if I put half as much interest into my school work as I did D&D that I would …oh, I don’t know, make the Dean’s Honor List in college and then go on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. Which, as you may know, I totally did. But Johnson points out that it wasn’t in spite of my interest in all the arcane rules and statistics that were crammed between the covers of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, nor despite my later love for video games. It was, at least in part, because of them. Stretching the mind by subjecting it to the cognitive demands of today’s mass media actually makes people smarter and more capable of cognitive sommersaults in other areas. Yeah, I know, it’s kind of hard to believe, but trust me; the book makes its arguments very well.

One of the other interesting ways in which “Everything Bad” upsets preconceptions about even the lowest of mass media is in its discussion of reality TV shows, and I have to admit that this one even flabbergasted me a bit. At first, anyway. Johnson spends a good chunk of one chapter discussing how shows like Survivor and The Apprentice are taxing on our intelligence –specifically, our EMOTIONAL intelligence. Briefly, emotional intelligence is a construct that deals with how well we can read the mental states and emotions of other people, track relationships between and within groups of people, and use that information to understand and predict what people will do. Watching reality television shows like The Apprentice requires emotional intelligence to make sense of what the various contestants are doing and WHY they’re doing it. It’s more than Bob Barker ever asked us to do on The Price is Right. To understand why Contestant A hates Contestant B but decided to create an alliance with Contestant C is a form of intelligence, Johnson argues. You can legitimately debate the merits of constructs like emotional intelligence, but he’s definitely on to something I’d never thought of, especially relative to the simplicity of earlier shows.

There’s a lot more I could go on about, like comparing the narrative complexity of today’s most popular dramas with those of yesteryear (The Soppranos or the new Battlestar Galactica vs. Dragnet or Starsky and Hutch for instance) or the influence of the Internet on all of this, but I’m getting long-winded as it is. If you like video games, television, movies, books, the Internet, or puppies, you should totally read this book. It’s easily going to be on my “Best of” list for 2006.

Published by