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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's…

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually… (2005)

by Steven Johnson

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The author does well to make his theory very clearly explained before he goes on to discuss it at a brisk pace. Had he not taken the pains to do so, the book would not be as enjoyable and readable. He does sell his point very, very well and backs it up with some good information. He takes his time with the conclusion to recap and summarize his point very well as well. He errs only when connecting a dismissal of the effects of violence on TV with a drop in crime. There is only anecdotal information to work with, but he claims it's more sound than the data shows. It is the only major flaw. I'm in agreement with about 94% of his argument. The book stands as an excellent essay and a point to ponder.
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
Before I read this book, I believed modern entertainment was progressively getting dumber, catering more and more to the lowest common denominator. Now, I have been convinced otherwise. Even the worst dreck of modern TV is in many ways more complex and intellectually demanding than comparable programs from earlier times.

Does this mean books will soon go extinct, to be replaced by superior modern media?

Mr. Johnson writes, "No cultural form in history has rivaled the novel’s capacity to re-create the mental landscape of another consciousness, to project you into the first person experience of other human beings. Movies and theater can make you feel as though you’re part of the action, but the novel gives you an inner vista that is unparalleled: you are granted access not just to the events of another human’s life, but to the precise way those events settle in his or her consciousness."

In this statement he sums up precisely what I love about fiction. Authors distill the best parts of their imagination and then translate that distillate into words. Impossibly, I inhabit and assimilate their imagined lives.

Other people have written about the benefits of literacy, social interaction, exercise, and sports. Maybe I'm too fond of contrarianism, but I loved reading arguments for the benefits of junk entertainment. ( )
  wishanem | Jan 27, 2015 |
Everything bad is good for you is something as unorthodox as a passionate argument about the cognitive benefits of popular culture. Johnson claims that popular culture today is so challenging and stimulating that we get heavy mental exercise by consuming it. Much of the book focuses on games, which is where I believe Johnson has the strongest case: Popular video games demand thinking and well thought strategies and plans, chores sometimes have to be performed, gratification is delayed, patience is required. Some lament how games are not like books, but like Johnson, says, the novelistic parts of games are their least interesting aspects. In games the content is not the primary benefit, but rather the mental exercise they provide. Reward and exploration are also essential parts: Players have to probe the game, explain it, figure out its rules and find its weak spots. To put it another way, they have to think about the system and what are the limits of the simulation. In this aspect - that ambiguity is essential - video games are different from board games and other traditional games. This is a highly entertaining account of games, and one that concurs very well with my own experience.

Johnson also defends other parts of popular culture, such as television shows and films, that contain many more subplots and where action is expressed with much more subtlety than in previous times. Even reality shows and tv debates get a positive rap, since they require strategy and emotional intelligence and adaption as rule change, in the case of the former, and we are good at judging people by face. To some extent all this seems right, but the question is how much of popular culture it holds for. Though it must be said that at least in the case of tv shows, Johnson argues at length that it is not only niche high brow shows that now have a bigger market to cater to, but that also middle or low brow culture have been lifted.

Johnson sees in all this an explanation of the Flynn effect, i.e. the sustained increase in measured intelligence test scores in many countries throughout most of the 20th century. That is a fascinating thought, but one that would demand more large-scale evidence than hitherto provided to be accepted. Hopefully some researchers out there are on the case. ( )
  ohernaes | Nov 24, 2013 |
Johnson has written several books on science and technology and his analyses are provocative. He suggests that television has evolved from shows that are essentially linear, with few characters and a simple story line, to shows like "The Sopranos" in which a single show would encompass multiple narrative threads and characters who move in and out of the plot, often with little explanation, requiring the viewer to do a lot of "filling in." Television now forces an engagement of the viewer that forces cognitive demands on the spectator.

Video games have evolved similarly. Today's games might require forty hours to complete and require the player to make strategic decisions based on multiple sources of information. "This is why many of us [me, certainly:] find modern video games baffling: we're not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster."

A quote for us book lovers to mull over:

"Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of game playing--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .
"Books are also tragically isolating [something I've always considered a benefit :))] While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . . .
"But perhaps the most dangerous property of books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . .This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one."

Johnson, in a jocular manner, is making the point that reading "is a form of explicit learning." Video games make you think. Of course, reading this book certainly got me thinking. . . .
( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Enjoyable essay on the sleeper curve. The lowest common denominator of entertainment is actually much more challenging for the viewer then it was 30 or 20 years ago. This means there is more expected of the consumer of entertainment, and to enjoy these more challenging forms we have to be smarter to keep up. Good for librarians who are questioned why libraries should stock DVDs or games, they are more complex than ever and require a lot of work and learning to be able to enjoy and get the most out of them. ( )
  wifilibrarian | Aug 29, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Johnson, a cross-disciplinary thinker who has written about neuroscience, media studies and computer technology, wants to convince us that pop culture is not the intellectual tranquilizer that its sound-alike critics have made it out to be but a potent promoter of cerebral fitness.
added by mikeg2 | editNew York Times, Walter Kirn (May 22, 2005)
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For Lydia, true believer.
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Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them.
It's the story of how systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and—amazingly enough—old-fashioned patience became indispensable tools for anyone trying to make sense of modern pop culture.
To summarize, the cognitive benefits of reading involve these faculties: effort, concentration, attention, the ability to make sense of words, to follow narrative threads, to sculpt imagined worlds out of mere sentences on the page. Those benefits are themselves amplified by the fact that society places a substantial emphasis on precisely this set of skills.
The first and last thing that should be said about the experience of playing today's video games, the thing you almost never hear in the mainstream coverage, is that games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard.
THE DIRTY little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun.
It's not what you're thinking about when you're playing a game, it's the way you're thinking that matters.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0141018682, Paperback)

In his fourth book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, iconoclastic science writer Steven Johnson (who used himself as a test subject for the latest neurological technology in his last book, Mind Wide Open) takes on one of the most widely held preconceptions of the postmodern world--the belief that video games, television shows, and other forms of popular entertainment are detrimental to Americans' cognitive and moral development. Everything Good builds a case to the contrary that is engaging, thorough, and ultimately convincing.

The heart of Johnson's argument is something called the Sleeper Curve--a universe of popular entertainment that trends, intellectually speaking, ever upward, so that today's pop-culture consumer has to do more "cognitive work"--making snap decisions and coming up with long-term strategies in role-playing video games, for example, or mastering new virtual environments on the Internet-- than ever before. Johnson makes a compelling case that even today's least nutritional TV junk food–the Joe Millionaires and Survivors so commonly derided as evidence of America's cultural decline--is more complex and stimulating, in terms of plot complexity and the amount of external information viewers need to understand them, than the Love Boats and I Love Lucys that preceded it. When it comes to television, even (perhaps especially) crappy television, Johnson argues, "the content is less interesting than the cognitive work the show elicits from your mind."
Johnson's work has been controversial, as befits a writer willing to challenge wisdom so conventional it has ossified into accepted truth. But even the most skeptical readers should be captivated by the intriguing questions Johnson raises, whether or not they choose to accept his answers. --Erica C. Barnett

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:30 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The $10 billion video gaming industry is now the second-largest segment of the entertainment industry in the United States, outstripping film and far surpassing books. Reality television shows featuring silicone-stuffed CEO wannabes and bug-eating adrenaline junkies dominate the ratings. But prominent social and cultural critic Steven Johnson argues that our popular culture has never been smarter. Drawing from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and literary theory, the author argues that the junk culture we're so eager to dismiss is in fact making us more intelligent. A video game will never be a book nor should it aspire to be -- and, in fact, video games, from Tetris to the Sims to Grand Theft Auto, have been shown to raise IQ scores and develop cognitive abilities that can't be learned from books. Likewise, successful television, when examined closely and taken seriously, reveals surprising narrative sophistication and intellectual demands. This book is a hopeful and spirited account of contemporary culture. The author demonstrates that our culture is not declining but changing-in exciting and stimulating ways we'd do well to understand. The glow of the video game or television screen will never be regarded the same way again.… (more)

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