2 July 2005
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.