Everything Bad is Good for You

Or is it “Everything Good is Bad for You”?  Either way, it's the title of Steven Johnson's new book which is sure to raise some ire.  He basically makes the argument that modern popular culture, far from corroding and dumbing down the country, is in fact making us smarter.

First of all, I like Steven Johnson.  I read two of his previous books (“Emergence” and “Mind Wide Open”), and loved both of them.  I always find them to be thoughtful and well written.  So I am looking forward to this one.

However, his argument in the New York Times magazine two weeks ago was weak.  His main line of argument was that shows on TV today (“24”, “ER”, “CSI”) not only have shorter names, but also have much denser and more complicated plotlines than TV did thirty years ago.  Even the drek of today (“Fear Factor”) is better than the drek of yesterday (“Love Boat”), he argues.

I agree, but that's missing the point.  It's easy to compare new TV with old TV, or new video games with old ones.  But what about comparing TV with no TV?  Maybe that time is more productively spent reading, working, talking, exercising, etc?  It may be true that TV shows today require more brain power to follow all the different branches and intertwining storylines, but that pales in comparison to reading a newspaper and trying to make sense of that.  Real life will always be more complicated than manufactured life, and Steven Johnson should know – he covered the complexity of real life in his other books.

That said, I reserve judgment until I actually read the book.  He probably deals with this argument, and it's not fair of me to jump the gun.


p.s. No, he didn't actually mention the fact that TV shows have short names.
p.p.s. One of the things I didn't mention in this post is that he recommends Grand Theft Auto (it seems to be a button he likes pushing).  But that's a whole different post…


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