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Is Everything Bad Really Good For Us?

We talk with media darling Steven Johnson about pop culture, 'media diet,' and -- ahem -- whether his much-hyped new book should really be taken seriously.
 
 
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Steven Johnson is a lucky man.

Once a respected -- albeit somewhat obscure -- technology journalist and nonfiction author, he recently watched his career undergo a dramatic, quick-change makeover (à la insipid FOX reality show "The Swan").

With the publication of his latest book, Everything Bad is Good for You (Riverhead; May 2005), the Brooklyn-based author has been shoved into a suddenly-adoring public spotlight, receiving critical acclaim everywhere from the New York Times (where Everything Bad ... was excerpted) to Salon, to the New Yorker and the San Francisco Chronicle .

On his Web site, Johnson notes with bewildered pleasure that -- so far -- the book's media buzz has been 90 percent favorable (and 10 percent negative).

OK, but from where we're standing, it looks a lot more like 100% favorable; we've seen Johnson all over the news and the Net, and are hard-pressed to find a review that doesn't kiss his butt.

Then again, considering his book's premise, the fact that the media loves Johnson isn't so surprising. Everything Bad is Good for You is a wholehearted endorsement of pop culture -- Johnson argues that everything we've been told is mind-killing drivel (TV, video games, and the ever-addictive Internet) has actually increased our IQs and made us smarter.

He argues that mass entertainment has grown more cognitively challenging over the last 30 years, and that TV shows of today -- particularly, multi-thread dramas like "Lost" and "24" -- have helped us learn focus, patience, retention, and "the parsing of narrative threads."

Right. So let's be honest -- it sounds like a lot of publicity-fueled hooey (does mass media really need its back scratched any more? It already sucks in gazillions of advertising dollars, not to mention millions of impressionable American minds).

I spoke with Johnson by telephone from his Brooklyn home to try to determine whether this guy was for real.

Laura Barcella: Have you been surprised by all the attention you've gotten from the book?

Steven Johnson: Yes and no. What's been surprising is the sheer volume of it. I knew this book was going to get more attention than my others because it is easier to describe and it's got the patrician hook, and people care about pop culture one way or the other. But I didn't realize it was going to be quite so crazy.

It's sparked this international conversation about the state of American pop culture. I did [an interview with an] Argentinean paper and a German paper today, and there have been dozens of articles about it overseas, not including England ...

The other interesting thing about it is that the criticism has come from the Left more than from the Right. And it may just be that the Right hasn't engaged with it yet. I did a show with a conservative-values person yesterday who was arguing with me about it. ... But generally [criticism has been] from a group that I'm much closer to philosophically -- progressive folks who don't let their kids watch TV because they don't like the ads and commercialism.

What happened in your conversation with the "conservative values" person yesterday?

It was perfectly civil. We had this funny exchange where he kept trying to make me out [as] this guy saying, "Your kids should be allowed to play Grand Theft Auto all day long."

I kept saying, "Look -- I think Grand Theft Auto is inappropriate for most kids," but the truth is that most video games are not violent. I say that right upfront, in the video game section of my book.

So why do you think some people are resistant to the idea that pop culture isn't all bad?

Well, it's a couple of different things. It's the oldest complaint in the cultural book that whatever the kids are up to today is no good. [ Laughter.]

We went through this with rock n' roll, and now we're going through it with video games. And there is this technological learning curve, particularly with interactive stuff and games, where not only do [older people] not get it, but they literally can't sit down and ... understand how to play. There's part of kids' culture that the older generation just literally hasn't seen.

Part of what I was trying to do in the book is to walk people through what you actually do when you play video games, so that they would understand the complexity.

Also, I think there's this nostalgia ... it's quaint to go back and look at these TV shows from the '70s. You know, they are sweet in some ways, but they just really aren't as smart.

One of the things that I like to do when I talk in person is to show a few minutes from [the first season of] "Dallas." You just can't believe how slow and plodding and predicable it was. And back then it was [considered] the hottest, raciest show on television! Everybody was like, "Ooh, scandalous -- 'Dallas.'"

But [the creators must have] thought we were imbeciles; they took forever to establish relationships between the characters. We have gotten so much more sophisticated in our ability to parse these things.

Could you summarize the "sleeper curve" concept, which you outline in the book?

The line is taken from the great Woody Allen movie [ Sleeper] where he wakes up 200 years in the future, and it turns out that hot fudge and deep fat are the things that are best for you.

My idea is that these parts of our culture, which we previously wrote off as the "junk food" of pop culture, actually turn out to be mentally nutritious after all. The book is about the last thirty years -- a trend of increased complexity and mental/cognitive engagement in pop culture over that period.

It's not about values; it's not about even aesthetic achievements ... I mean, I think "The Sopranos" is a great work of art for our time, but I'm not talking about these things as great works of art. I'm just saying that in terms of the mental work you have to do to make sense of these things, they have grown increasingly challenging over that period.

Your theory is that our cognitive abilities are developing while we watch TV -- something that's usually considered mindless entertainment. In your book, you specifically mentioned the value of certain TV dramas that have multiple storylines and plot threads. But how can regular people, who might not be familiar with these ideas, tell the difference between "smart" TV shows and "stupid" ones?

It would be really useful for parents to be able to look at something and say, "I don't care if it has a little bit of violence or obscenity, but I want to make sure that it's mentally challenging for my kid." That's the kind of parent I'll be when my sons are a little older.

I don't think television is improving our problem-solving skills and IQ the way that games are. Interactive media is doing more of that. And the kids who grow up playing these complicated games and interacting with complex software interfaces -- those are the forms of media that are really doing the heavy lifting in terms of improving their minds.

What television has done is basically play catch-up to that. TV has kind of come around to realize that there is a generation of kids that expect to be challenged by their entertainment, and they want engagement; they want puzzles and problems. So if you sit those kids down in front of "Three's Company," they are going to be bored stiff.

So you think that we should all be playing video games?

[Laughter] Someone asked me, "If your children grow up to be incredibly avid readers and never pick up a video game, would you intervene and go, 'You kids should play more games?'" And I think I probably would!

What I keep coming back to is the idea of a balanced media diet -- we should learn to respect [what] we can get out of games that we can't get out of reading books or television -- and certainly the things that you get out of books that you can't get out of any of those other things.

What you should be aiming for is a fluency in all of those different languages -- a recognition of what they're good for, and what they're not. If you're trying to write a novel on your blog, that's a mistake -- write it in book form.

Don't try to tell a complex psychological story in a video game -- you have movies and novels for that.

Is there a place in school curriculums for video games?

Absolutely. I would much rather see kids learning about the Civil War by running simulations where they play both sides, and they command the armies and deal with the political pressures and the supply constraints, and have it work out to different outcomes based on their strategies.

They would learn much more about the kind of the system that was in play at that moment in history than they would by just reading an account of it in a book. And frankly, kids will be a thousand times more interested in it if they can simulate it rather than just read it in a book.

So if pop culture is making us smarter, what's happening to people who don't consume it? Are they getting dumber?

[Laughter]. Well, you know, it's interesting... What happens a lot when I do radio interviews is that people call in and say, "We haven't let our children watch television. They haven't played a video game, and they are wonderful kids."

At some point, I may just get so tired of these interviews that I end up saying, "I'm sorry, but you've done a terrible thing to your children." Of course I don't really think that's the case ... I certainly don't think [it's bad] if you've decided not to let TV dominate your life, or your kids' life.

[My book is] more for people who have decided to let some of these good shows into their lives -- to let them know, "Hey, there's nothing to worry about. It's fine."

For people who have disconnected from interactive media -- I don't know how well, particularly for kids, they are going to be prepared for the world they're growing up into. The question is, is their future work environment going to look like sitting down in front of your computer and playing a video game, dealing with [your friends] on IM and web logs? Or is it going to look like reading a book?

I think for better or for worse, it's going to look like the former, not the latter. And to artificially keep your kids from that world, particularly when it has so many benefits, is handicapping them. There is no question in my mind.

How you do think the Internet is changing the separation between the people who make popular culture and the people who consume it?

What you see across the board is this blurring of the lines ... even for the top-down kind of thing. On a television show where it's really created by a professional TV [staff] of writers and directors making the decisions ... they have so much more feedback now from fan sites, where every little move is decided; they have so much more information about what's working and what's not working, from all these fans. I have no doubt that fans are shaping some future directions of shows.

And you really see it in the blogging world, where so many of the people reading the blogs are also bloggers themselves. So you have media being created by people who are reading other people's media, who are also creating the media.

What about reality TV? You refer to it as being not as horrible as people make it out to be.

I appreciate your capturing that subtlety, because some people have responded to the book by saying, "This is the guy who thinks watching 'Fear Factor' will raise your IQ."

I just think that you have to compare reality TV to the crop from yesteryear. Are "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" better than "Joani Loves Chachi" and "The A-Team?" I think clearly they are.

That's why I went into some detail about what it was that made them more interesting, which is the psychological game playing. I don't think those shows are the sharpest on TV and I certainly don't think that you're improving your mind by watching them -- but they're a sign that the overall trend in our culture is toward more complexity.

What do you usually watch at home?

We've started watching TV on DVD as much as possible. We can watch "The Sopranos" from April until early September, all the way through. Then we'll watch "Six Feet Under" from September until December, and then we'll watch "24." It's a great way to do it because you can really keep track of all the narratives, which are very complicated, and you see more connections because you are watching them night after night.

I think "Lost" is a totally [brainy] show -- it's a great example of how things change. If they'd done that show 20 or 30 years ago, they would have had everybody on the plane, and a two-hour opening episode where you would've met all the characters, learned all their stories and then the plane would have crashed and you would have seen what happened afterwards.

Instead they started after the crash, and everybody is a mystery. So you spend the whole season slowly piecing together all these connections between characters and where they came from. [It represents a] tolerance for ambiguity that audiences would not have had 20 years ago. They would have been like, "I don't know who these people are! What are they doing?!"

Did you ever watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

It's funny that you bring that up. I did a very high-brow arts show in London when I was there, on BBC 4 or something. Another man there was a very articulate cultural critic, and I was worried when I went into the interview that he would be like, "Oh my God, here's this stupid American who thinks reality TV is an important work of culture."

So I gave my little riff, and then they turned to the other guy for a rebuttal, and I was expecting to get slammed. [Instead] he was like, "Well, I think Steven makes some excellent points -- but what I find [most] striking about his book is that he doesn't mention 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer."'

I thought, "Oh my God -- I've been outwitted by 'Buffy!'"

But no, I didn't really watch it. I gather it would have been a great addition to the book.

Laura Barcella is AlterNet's front page editor.