Richard's Reviews > Everything Bad is Good for You

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
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's review
Feb 15, 16

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, technology, social-political, really-deep-thinking, read-these-reviews-first
Read in August, 2008

Sept 2010 update below.

Excellent book. Not a convincing argument, but a very refreshing and provocative contrarian perspective.

Johnson provides evidence that much of our mass entertainment, even the stuff we often shudder at, is gradually pushing the IQs of its consumers steadily up. He focuses our attention on aspects of television -- including reality TV!, video games, and much else in this effort.

Two things are crucial to note, though.

First, Johnson’s title and subtitle (”How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter”) are deeply ambiguous, since ”Smarter” and ”Good for You” are extremely subjective concepts. He really shouldn’t have used such loaded terms, and doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to explain and narrow his objective. His text only does an excellent job at arguing that many aspects of modern culture are making humans better at solving certain kinds of puzzles, and better at thinking about complex situations.

He provides fairly persuasive evidence that consumers of mass media can now understand and enjoy entertainment that would be bewilderingly too complex for the masses just a few decades ago. He provides broad evidence for this, but most convincingly in television and video games. The reason behind this is quite astonishing: in order to keep voracious audiences coming back for more, producers have to ”keep it fresh”, adding something interesting and new to the mix with each iteration. One way of doing that is to tease the brain with subtlety and complexity, and thus we are in effect trained over the decades in understanding and even enjoying this complexity. [The quest for novelty has also long been seen as a reason for the inexorable spread of sexuality and violence in media, although I don’t recall Johnson exploring this sidebar.:]

But Johnson doesn’t really argue that this makes anyone more moral, or happier, or that it makes society better, or even that a complex show is in any other sense qualitatively better than a simpler show.

This is related to the second point: Johnson’s argument should be taken as descriptive, not prescriptive. This is something that many readers seem to have problems with: many folks automatically assume that anything an author spends a great deal of time and effort elaborating is something that author must approve of. But often -- and I believe this book is a good example -- the intent instead is to explore a fascinating topic and to illuminate it to a broader audience for pondering.

Johnson doesn’t do a very good job at explaining this, which is a shame. We spend so much time agreeing with ourselves that mass entertainment is corrosive that the contrarian point of view becomes almost shameful. And even after reading this book, it is easy to still conclude that popular media is destructive, but due to the morality of its content. It is possible that McLuhan was wrong, or at least that the story is more complicated than we’d previously believed.

And frankly, that’s good. Even though I haven’t watched more than an hour or so of television per year for about a decade now, I do appreciate the increasing complexity of stories offered up in Western culture. And the story of technology’s impact on humanity is, itself, a tale that becomes more delightfully engrossing as it becomes more curious and twisted.

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The Economist has an article and opinion piece that provide yet more evidence of this book’s message. Specifically, that playing fast-action video games helps with decision making. See the article The skills from zapping ’em and the commentary by their “Babbage” correspondent Why World of Warcraft is good for you .
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02/15 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6)

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message 6: by Trevor (new)

Trevor We seem to read either the same books at the same time or parallel books at the same time. It is quite disturbing as I'm not sure how we manage it.

Another book I'll need to look out for. I've heard of this one before - I think I might have heard him interviewed on the radio when it came out, but do like books that provide a perspective rather than an answer.

message 5: by Richard (last edited Apr 20, 2009 02:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Richard Actually, I read this one months ago, but just added most of the review after reading your review of Amusing Ourselves to Death. I was trying to write a comment on your review, but after several false starts i realized that...

(a) I'd really need to read Postman's book;

(b) but I long ago read the roughly parallel Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television;

(c) I've since decided that those dire warnings from the eighties are missing some crucial point, roughly conceptualized as "McLuhan was wrong: the medium is only a small part of the message, and to focus on the medium is to pursue an ignoratio elenchi (I was checking whether 'Red Herring' was what I wanted when I stumbled on this, quite pleased with myself); and

(d) I'm already too distracted with other reading topics to promise that I'd ever get around to reading Postman's book...

So that comment on your review didn't get written. Sorry -- but I did click on "like"!

But, yes, I can strongly recommend this book. It is the sort of thing that will confuse, confound and perhaps enrage those that are ideologically committed to the view that mass culture is an unmitigated evil, and I know how you love such subversiveness. But at the same time, he leaves too much unexamined, so it will provoke your critical facilities in both directions. Win!

message 4: by Trevor (last edited Apr 20, 2009 03:15PM) (new)

Trevor Postman does say the medium is the message, but also says he doesn't completely agree with McLuhan - I am going to need to read McLuhan at some stage.

Postman seems quite fond of much of modern culture, though this might be disingenuous (it is hard to say) but he is definitely angry about modern culture since the telegraph and its impact on reasoned debate. His arguments are pretty impressive, but this book looks like an interesting counter view.

I also like the ignoratio elenchi, and will need to think about mediums and how they affect messages a bit more.

And, this is one of the best comments anyone could wish for on a review - a complementary review of a similar but different book. How could anyone ask for more?

Richard Okay, okay. I was going to continue the discussion here, but Johnson's book is really tangential to the really interesting stuff. So I'm going to jump back to your review. :-)

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim he's got a new coming out which looks interesting. I'm number 1 on the library waiting list.

Richard Yeah, it looks good: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. But I never got around to his The Invention of Air (or others), and I'm so far behind in my reading that his latest will just have to wait.

He has a really cool animated video explaining the main points of the book. Take a look on his blog at Good Ideas, The Four-Minute Version.

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