- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Steven Johnson is well aware of the irony that it took an act of high culture — a book — to deliver the good news. Namely: Pop culture, including some reality television, and especially video games, is demonstrably good for the gray matter. Author of several books about neuroscience and new technology and a contributor to highbrow magazines such as Wired and Slate, Mr. Johnson is not in the business of putting himself out of business. Books are not about to become relics, he reassures those worried about the impending death of the printed word.

“Books continue to be vital to the culture in a whole host of ways,” says Mr. Johnson, whose lively new book, “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter,” argues that the increasingly complex story worlds and narrative arcs of video games such as “Tetris” and TV shows as old as “Hill Street Blues” and as recent as “24” are perhaps causally connected to the rise of IQs.

The provocative thesis — it has the potential of riling a range of critics from conservative TV watchdogs to granola health advocates — has earned Mr. Johnson the distinction of being The Guy Who Says Watching “Survivor” Makes You Smarter, he says.

Mr. Johnson is aware, too, that his book flies in the face of received wisdom. The culture incessantly tells us — and tells us to tell our children — to put down the remote control; pick up a book; turn off the Nintendo; turn on the StairMaster.

Somewhat mischievously, he calls the upward trend in pop culture complexity the “Sleeper Curve” after a sequence in the Woody Allen movie “Sleeper,” in which scientists in the year 2173 are stunned to learn that a 20th-century man has been conditioned to avoid fatty foods.

In those terms, “Everything Bad’s” counterintuition is: Go ahead and slurp up the hot fudge and cream pies.

“It’s very rare to have books that are fundamentally optimistic about the culture,” says Mr. Johnson, who lives in New York City with his wife and — in case concerned parents are wondering — two children. “The left is just as guilty as the right. People just want to write — and I guess people want to buy — books that say we’re going to hell in a handbasket.”

Mr. Johnson’s argument is actually more refined than the splashy “Everything” of the book’s title suggests: Not all popular culture is created equal, he readily admits.

He originally began writing the book as an essay-length defense of high-concept video games such as The Legend of Zelda and the controversial Grand Theft Auto and even antediluvian diversions such as Pac-Man.

“At some point in the late-‘90s, I remember thinking these video games are getting pretty amazing,” he says.

Among video games’ virtues is their potential not just to enhance visual memory or improve manual dexterity, as parenting books are loath to admit, but to impart life lessons — they can teach users the virtue of patience and deferred gratification, Mr. Johnson says.

And, he argues, they can boost abstract cognitive abilities such as pattern recognition, analytical problem-solving and long-range decision making. “There are really dozens if not hundreds of interacting variables [in video games], and you’re trying to look at all those interactions and figure out the patterns and achieve your goals of controlling that world,” he says, adding, “It’s as intellectually rewarding as the best literature; I really believe it.”

He writes in the book: “My nephew would be asleep in five seconds if you plopped him down in an urban studies classroom, but somehow an hour of playing ‘SimCity’ taught him that high tax rates in industrial areas can stifle development.”

Mr. Johnson noticed something more: that as video games have gotten better, so has television. In fact, he says, it’s never been better. He sees a cultural link.

The increasing sophistication of gaming culture is forcing television to smarten up, Mr. Johnson figures. The condescending fluff of “Dallas” no longer cuts it in a multimedia-savvy age.

In addition to upper-middlebrow shows such as “24” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” Mr. Johnson points to erudite network comedies such as “Arrested Development” as well as the psychologically complex “Survivor” reality series and the socially crafty contestants in Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.”

Is it any wonder, Mr. Johnson asks, that the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed measurable improvement in children’s achievement levels? “On every single measure, in every age group, the kids today are either better than or the same as they were in 1971,” Mr. Johnson says of the 2004 test results.

Mr. Johnson cautions that it’s not indisputably clear that pop culture is the source of soaring smarts. But neither is there any evidence of “brain rot,” he says.

What about the possibility that as we’ve become smarter, we’ve become more decadent?

“It is entirely possible,” Mr. Johnson says. “I’m perfectly happy to hear someone say to me that kids are getting smarter but the values they’re getting from the culture are so bad that it’s a net loss.” (He doesn’t agree with it — he thinks that entertainment is seemingly more sleazy today because it takes into account ethical ambiguities that have always existed — but he admits it’s “an intellectually honest position to take.”)

In the end, Mr. Johnson counsels moderation.

The cultural maverick turns out, after all, to be sensible.

So parents: Relax.

He says, “What you want in your kids is a balanced media diet. You want them to be comfortable in interactive environments, because that’s the future. But you also want them reading books and running around in the yard.”

Finally: “If your kid is doing all the things that kids should be doing and has a normal social life and is also really into games, you should not see that time as wasted time. They’re probably better off than you were watching ‘Fantasy Island.’”



Click to Read More

Click to Hide