2 July 2005

Useful crap

The snob defence
Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson (Allen Lane)

I read this book while chain-smoking, glugging whiskey and eating massive quantities of dairy products; now I feel I’ve been had. Not everything bad is good for you. Steven Johnson’s fizzily readable little polemic actually consists of two separate arguments about popular culture. First, he rails against the notion that our culture is dumbing down; he says that TV, films and videogames are better than before. Secondly, he maintains that these things are actually making us more intelligent.

Johnson makes a persuasive case for the first claim. It is true that TV shows such as The West Wing are more complicated than Starsky and Hutch. It is also true that videogames such as SimCity are more complicated than Pac-Man. The uninitiated may learn a lot from Johnson’s entertaining and clever account, in the first section, of the sheer hard work and problem-solving required to navigate a modern videogame. His fine analyses of obscure in-jokes in Seinfeld or the confusing jargon of ER are also illuminating, and he makes the good point that the era of DVD aftersales encourages more subtlety and complexity in television programming. So far, so good. But perhaps these scattered observations do not cohere well enough into a headline-grabbing thesis. So let’s say in addition that this stuff is actually making us smarter. And here the problems begin.

What might “smarter” mean? Johnson never says, and systematically blurs crucial distinctions. Pop culture is “intellectually demanding”, or it enhances “our cognitive faculties”, or it poses “cognitive challenges”, or it has “intellectual benefits”. But cognition and intellect are not the same thing. A baseball player or cricketer has a highly specialised cognitive mastery in judging the flight of a ball through the air, but that does not make him necessarily an intellectual powerhouse. Conversely, an intellectual giant might be cognitively challenged in various fields, such as remembering where he put his keys.

The book affects an air of empirical, science-based analysis, but unfortunately Johnson wants it on the cheap. Early on, he grandiosely announces that he will do what most cultural critics fail to do: engage with the findings of neuroscience. What he actually then does is to mumble something about the brain’s dopamine system and to guess that videogames might be good at engaging it. He saves his grand proof, meanwhile, for the second half of the book, which goes like this: IQ scores have risen steadily over the last few decades in the industrialised west, so this must be thanks to the cerebral challenges posed by pop culture. Really, must it? You could make an equally plausible case that since banana consumption has risen massively in the west over the same period, it must be the nutritional benefits of bananas, so rich in potassium and other brain-enhancing minerals, that are responsible for a rise in general intelligence. (That is, if rising IQ scores are actually evidence for a rise in intelligence, an idea that is highly controversial.) But a book called Everything Good is Good for You: How Fruit Is Making Us Smarter probably wouldn’t be such a hot publishing proposition.

What is undeniable is that watching complicated TV shows makes you better at watching more complicated TV shows; and playing videogames makes you better at playing more videogames. But Johnson wants more: he wants these skills to be, as psychologists would say, transferable. He wants being better at playing Half-Life 2 or watching The Simpsons to make you better at life. But the evidence is woefully thin. One recent study Johnson triumphantly cites shows that regular videogamers were better at doing “a series of quick visual recognition tests, picking out the color of a letter or counting the number of objects on a screen”. In other words, regular videogamers were better at performing videogame-style tests. This is not a very surprising result.

So much for the pseudo-science. The weirdest aspect of the book is that it defends popular culture while holding an attitude of contempt for it. “With mass culture,” Johnson opines, “the individual works are less interesting than the broader trends”; and “the content of most entertainment has less of an impact than the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do”. In other words, he is a snob: yes, this stuff is crap, but look, it’s useful crap! Embarrassed by the princesses and dungeons of the videogame series Zelda, for instance, he pleads that it is a “false premise” that “the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent”. Of course, we know that “content” consists of more than “themes and characters”, but Johnson is hobbled by an exclusively literary idea of what content might be. He admits that “Most of the time, when you’re hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing”, but he never for a moment considers the visual aesthetics of games — how they imagine and construct the next thing for you to see — and cannot allow this to be part of the “content” which he suggests we ignore. He does not seem to notice, moreover, that this wilful blindness is inconsistent with the fact that if videogames make us better at anything, it is precisely at visual tasks.

Meanwhile, I defer to no man in my admiration of the television series 24, but again Johnson begs us to forget the “content” and admire instead the complexity of the “social network” that populates the fiction. He even draws a cute little diagram with lines representing the relationships between characters. Is this really what makes 24 so good? “The content of the show may be about revenge killings and terrorist attacks,” he says, once again hurriedly skipping over what he perceives to be the crap, “but the collateral learning involves something altogether different, and more nourishing. It’s about relationships.”

This is hilarious. I have learned nothing nourishing about relationships from 24 ; I would be deeply worried about any adult who claimed that she had. But the idea that learning about relationships is the desirable thing reveals something interesting. Johnson poses as a hip, wired, ultramodern thinker, yet his notion of cultural value is extraordinarily conservative — based, once again, on values specific to literature. There is a generic problem in our culture with film or pop critics who read everything as a text, and are incapable of discussing the visual or sonic aspects of their subject: Johnson, sadly, fits right in.

Lest we forget, it is worth pointing out that 24, too, is an audiovisual artefact; but nothing about the split-screen editing, the music, the lighting, the acting, the rhythms of suspense and revelation — everything, in short, that makes it a fascinating cultural object — is allowed to intrude on Johnson’s hyper-narrow idea of “content”. Later, he claims that you can watch the animated film about fish, Finding Nemo, “dozens of times and still detect new information with each viewing” — not because it is so visually detailed but because of its large cast of characters. The book as a whole suffers this notable incoherence: Johnson reads everything as literature, so that “content” is reduced to the textual aspects of a game or a film or a TV show and hurriedly dismissed in favour of supposed functional benefits to our brains, and yet at the same time he praises these artefacts for the complexity of “information” they contain. He wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Everything Bad Is Good for You is in the end most interesting as an example of a particular philistine current in computer-age thinking. In an age of digitised media, everything is reduced to, and judged by, its brute sum of “information”. “What are the rewards of reading?,” Johnson asks rhetorically at one point. The answer is: “the information conveyed by the book, and the mental work you have to do to process and store that information.” This is a barbaric, instrumentalist view of art. For a corrective, we may remember what André Gide said of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: “If I try to find the quality I most admire in this work, it is its gratuitousness. I don’t know of a more useless work, nor one less anxious to prove something.”

Art, and entertainment too, are not about information: to value them for their supposed utility is to impugn what is best about them. A novel by Jeffrey Archer contains by any measure much more “information” than a short poem by William Empson; it boasts a much more complex social network and more subplots that we must keep track of. Does that mean Archer is better for your brain? I don’t imagine that even Johnson really thinks so.

  • Pauline de Robert

    Hello Steven – I came across your link to this review on the Prospect blog and since I am in the middle of reading the “Everything Bad…” book right now, came for a look-see. There has been something bothering me about the book (very readable, somewhat tongue in cheek and therefore quite dangerous in its likeability) and I think you nail it. It is the lack of definition of “smart” and the implicit assumption that the skills are transferable from virtual to real world.
    One of the major theories to come out of cognitive psychology in the past 3 decades is that people plan but engage in situated action, ie are opportunistic in a given context rather than stick to the rational plan; another slightly older theory is that humans tend to “satisfice” and pick the first good-enough-solution rather than look for the optimum solution, which in most cases is not worth the effort. In other words, people use heuristics most of the time rather than rational reasoning (and this induces various biases in decision making, but that’s another story). Applied to video games, you could very well argue that gamers’ problem solving behaviour is specific to the particular virtual world they are engaged in, that they plan given the objectives of the game and so on, and react depending on the “physics” of the game (ie context), and that none of this is transferable to the real world (a different context, where different motivations apply). Which would tend to somewhat knock Johnson’s idea that games make us smart…

  • http://stevenpoole.net/ Steven

    Hi Pauline,
    Thanks for the news from cog psy. Given genre traditions, gaming skills are very often transferable to other games, but the evidence that they are transferable to non-gaming situations is thin, except in the interesting subcase of military games (the US Army apparently successfully trains urban infantry tactics with multiplayer gaming, etc.), or highly specific cases such as that skill in lightgun-shooting games translates pretty well into skill in shooting real guns — but that’s not so surprising since they are very similar actions. (By contrast, I doubt Wii Tennis would improve one’s tennis game IRL.)

    I also once wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about how videogames had enhanced my life skills.

  • dsquared

    [You could make an equally plausible case that since banana consumption has risen massively in the west over the same period, it must be the nutritional benefits of bananas, so rich in potassium and other brain-enhancing minerals, that are responsible for a rise in general intelligence]

    the latest argument from the Freakonomics crowd is that one of the big wins in IQ terms was the removal of lead-based additives from petrol – a couple of credible econometricians claim to find really quite huge benefits from this in everything from crime rates to SAT scores. Albeit that a lot of the actual statistical work appears to me to have a lot of the same problems as the Levitt & Donohue “More Abortions, Less Crime” paper (ie the whole dataset is dominated by a massive rise and fall in the 1980s, which it is not clear whether you should ‘correct for’ it or not), they certainly think they’re on to something.

    I’d tentatively advance a defence of Empson vs Archer on informational grounds. If you consider Shannon’s information theory (setting aside worries about whether the entropy-paramter in information theory actually matches up well to the ordinary language meaning of “information”), then a signal is informative only in as much as it differs from what you had expected. In this way, an entire novel from Jeffrey Archer, while highly complicated, might be totally predictable, and thus contain less information than even a quite short poem.

    (the whole thesis of this book, of course, was prefigured by my uncle, who in the 1980s watched me playing “Jetpac” on the ZX Spectrum via the Kempston joystick interface and opined that I was well on the way to learning the skills necessary to drive a JCB).

  • http://stevenpoole.net/ Steven

    But could one really predict a Jeffrey Archer novel word for word ? Like some bastard version of Pierre Menard (re)writing Don Quixote? I shudder to think.

    Thanks for the interesting info re lead and petrol: seems much more plausible than Johnson’s view, and possibly even more than the banana hypothesis, though I remain very fond of it. (Whether the Flynn effect is measuring a real increase in something is another matter.)

    And yeah, Jetpac was awesome.