‘Everything Bad is Good for You’
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JEFFREY BROWN: Popular culture is a race to the bottom. Television will harm your brain. We live in a dumb down age. It’s a common view of our times, but is it right? A new book offers the provocative counter argument that, in fact, “Everything Bad is Good For You.” Its author is Steven Johnson, author of several books on technology and science. Welcome to you.
STEVEN JOHNSON: Thank you. Good to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s define what you mean by popular culture being good for you. Good in what way?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Right. Well, what I tried to do in this book is look not at the kind of moral message that the culture is sending out, which has really been the central focus of the debate that we’ve been having, you know, about the state of pop culture over the last few years. But not so much a look at violence or sex, but look at the kind of mental work you have to do to make sense of your average piece of pop culture, whether it’s a television show or a video game.
How many characters do you have to kind of follow, how many narrative lines do have you to follow, how much information do you have to kind of draw upon to make sense of the television drama, say, how many puzzles or problems do you have to solve in your average video game?
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean how hard the brain has to work?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Exactly. And not so much the content, but the kind of thinking that you have to do, what kind of mental exercise in a sense, and if you look at it on that level, the story of the last 30 years is, in fact, a story of increased complexity and increased cognitive engagement in the pop culture and not this kind of dumbing down situation that you describe.
JEFFREY BROWN: And your argument is that helps us, or helps young people in particular how? Do what for instance?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, there are a bunch of different things. I mean, you know, one of the reasons why we encourage kids to read — right, we assume that there’s something positive in reading in the first place — it’s because it requires patience, it requires focus, it requires the ability to kind of keep chains of cause and effect straight in the head as you’re kind of reading through something.
What I’m saying is that the new popular culture and particularly the interactive culture, the games, are getting more and more like reading, and in fact, maybe exercising parts of the brain that are different from, but just as important as, what we get from reading books.
JEFFREY BROWN: Give us an example. For example, in television.
STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, one of the things that you’ve seen over the last 30 years is the rise of these, you know, really complicated, multi-threaded dramas. In 1981, when “Hill Street Blues” first came out, it was the most complicated show on network television. The critics loved it, everybody thought it was great. It had these multiple kind of plot lines and you had to follow a lot of information, you had to really focus to make sense of the show, and it was a big flop for a long period of time because it was just too challenging for people to make sense of it.
Fast forward now, you know, 25 years and what you find is there are many shows that are big successes that are actually more complicated, require more focus and patience and more kind of needling out the intricacies of the plot that are big hits. So a show like the “Sopranos” is a great example. “Sopranos” has a lot of violence, a lot obscenity, we all know that. But compared to the shows of the past, it’s much more complicated storytelling.
I mean, really the plot of the “Sopranos” is, in a sense, a story that goes over 100 hours that involves, you know, 30-odd characters and their lives kind of weaving in and out. It’s the scale of a classic 19th Century novel in terms of the canvas that it’s kind of painted on. Now it’s more violent and it’s more obscene on some level, but it’s also more complex and the mind is exercised by dealing with complicated things, by solving kind of complex puzzles and piecing together complex scenarios.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you suggesting that it, in some way, makes us smarter or sharper or wiser? I mean, how far do you take it?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Yeah, well, that’s the question I think, the subtitle of the book, “How Pop Culture Actually Makes Us Smarter,” is pushing that. I think what is happening actually is that the interactive culture, the games and the interactive media, like the Web and e-mail and those things, are in fact, making us smarter at certain kinds of problem solving, sometimes what people call fluid intelligence, your ability to take in a situation and kind of solve it on the spot.
It’s not what you’ve learned in school in terms of facts and figures, but just your ability to kind of assess something, figure out relevant patterns and kind of solve it. So I think that the games particularly and some of the interactive media are making us sharper in terms of that, and in fact IQ tests that measure this property, in fact, have been going up steadily over the last 40 years and accelerating over the last ten.
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what I was going to ask you. Where’s the proof? How do you measure something like this?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, there’s a really interesting trend that people don’t hear enough about called the Flynn Effect, which is that in all modern media societies over the last fifty to sixty years, IQ scores have been going up, and they seem to be accelerating over the last fifteen years. And they are particularly acute at something called “G,” which is a kind of subset of IQ, which really measures this kind of fluid intelligence, which is really your ability to reason and deal with, you know, complicated factors and figure out a solution to a problem.
And “G” is going up at this kind of dramatic rate even though our — you know, a lot of the standard measures of what we’re getting out of our schools seem to be flat-lining or maybe getting a little bit better now, but not nearly as dramatic as that. And I think what a lot of that is, is people sitting down and interacting with media that is so much more challenging than the media they had to interact with 30 years ago.
I mean, basically 30 years ago, you would turn on, you know, “Laverne and Shirley” with, you know, the clicker, if you even had that, and you had three to four channels and those were your options. And now you sit down with 20 applications open on the computer, a video game going, you’re working through all these things, you’re learning software without even looking at the manual. That’s thinking, that’s a real kind of exercise.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, several times already you’ve said something, the “Sopranos,” for example: Violent.
STEVEN JOHNSON: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Language, sex. You don’t seem to want to talk about content. And of course, you have to wonder if the content plays a role in countervailing whatever benefits you might see.
STEVEN JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, partially I would accept it if the conventional wisdom after this book does whatever it’s going to do, if the conventional wisdom becomes well, sure the pop culture is making everybody smarter in this way, but the violence and the sex is having a countervailing, you know, moral influences that doesn’t make this kind of positive effect worth it in the end. If that’s what people come away with, I’ll accept it. I won’t agree with that, but that’s not what the conventional wisdom is now.
The conventional wisdom is it’s getting dumber, everybody’s going for the lowest common denominator, pop culture is all about kind of cheap pleasures and it’s violent and the sex is over the top, and so on like that. The other thing, though, that I would say is, yes we’ve had ten years of increasingly violent media out there, but simultaneously we’ve lived through the single most dramatic drop in violent crime in our country’s history, particularly among juveniles. So whatever the effect of that media violence is, it is by definition much less than the other social forces that are affecting violence. So I’m not as worried about it as I think some people are.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, many parents– and I’m one of them and you were telling me you’re one of them, too — we worry about our kids spending too much at our house, we call it screen time: Television, computer games, video games. You’re suggesting that we’re, in some ways, asking the wrong question? It’s not so much quantity or time, but it’s quality?
STEVEN JOHNSON: It’s what kind of screen time they’re having. I think — I’m a big advocate for kind of a balanced media diet. And if your kids are playing video games all day long, you know, they should be reading books and should be doing other things, of course.
But I would argue that some of the most interesting video games that are out there, for instance, a game like the “Sims,” which is also the most popular video game of all time, where you manage this little virtual family and control the lives of all these characters on the screen, which is extremely challenging, extremely rich and lots of variables going on.
That if your kid is spending, you know, an hour or two playing that a night that’s not something you should worry about. I mean, you should think about their addiction to that the way you would think about your kid being addicted to playing chess. You know, they shouldn’t do too much of it, of course, but a little is fine.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you told me you have two young boys, so what do you tell them?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, the oldest one is only three and a half. So the joke in our family is that by the time they’re six they’re going to be like, “Dad, I don’t want to play video games any more, I want to read a novel,” you know So if that happens, I don’t know, I’ll have to tell them that novels are probably worth it, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: Novels are worth it too. All right, let’s end there. Steven Johnson, thanks a lot.
STEVEN JOHNSON: Thank you.