Friday, November 18, 2005

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I actually managed to read a book during law school, and during football season no less. Admittedly, it's a very short one. Steven Johnson is a neuroscientist who set out to explore deep structures of TV, the Internet and video games in Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

The premise is simple: denunciations of the vapidity and/or immorality of contemporary popular culture focus on the wrong thing, namely content. But if we look instead at the structure of various cultural forms, there is a remarkable upward trend in complexity and interactivity, a trend Johnson calls the "Sleeper Curve." Shows such as Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Survivor require much more of the viewer than popular shows of 25 years ago--not in terms of vocabulary or any other content-based measure, but in terms of narrative complexity, intertextual reference, and nonlinearity. Whereas 25 years ago the primary goal was not to ask any more thought of the viewer than necessary, many of the most successful shows in recent years withhold information, play with time, weave in multiple threads and storylines, and work on a variety of levels of reference. The good news is that the business of TV makes it likely that this trend will continue, as shows are less profitable now when they are disposable and more profitable if they stand up to repeated viewings, yielding new pleasures on the 2nd, 3rd, or even 10th viewing--such shows are more viable in syndication and more successful in DVD sales.

Johnson also focuses extensively on video games, which increasingly reward not scattered attention, but rather the ability to achieve complex tasks through the gradual completion of hierarchically organized tasks toward intermediate goals. Yes, you can enjoy Grand Theft Auto or The Sims just by messing around with them, but getting anywhere in such games requires you to identify relevant tasks that will lead to completing missions or achieving goals. Johnson calls this process "tunneling" and says learning it is akin to learning algebra--not useful for most people in and of itself, but rather because of the type of process learning that it requires.

It's important not to overestimate the benefits here and not to ignore the shortcomings--in particular, contemporary culture does not promote systematic expository thinking and writing in serious depth, i.e. traditional book literacy. OTOH, people are probably reading more than ever, and are certainly writing more than ever, thanks largely to phenomena such as this very blog and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) like it. Johnson convincingly demonstrates that while the smartest people in our society are probably no smarter than the smartest people 50 years ago, the average person is getting smarter at a rapid pace, as shown by the continual adjustment upward of standard IQ test scales. (Think of it as SAT recentering in reverse: the average score stays constant--100 for IQ, 1000 for the SAT--but how many correct answers that score represents changes as people perform better or worse in absolute terms.)

Johnson's book refocuses cultural debate is a reamarkably useful way, even if you question some of his findings. Middlebrow and lowbrow cultural criticism too frequently focuses on content over structures in numerous situations in our society, and even highbrow academic writing too frequently takes cheap potshots at content as a way of scoring points. Anyone tired of reading gloom and doom accounts of our culture should take a look at this book.

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