Daniel Solera's Reviews > Everything Bad is Good for You

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
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Jul 23, 09

bookshelves: pop-culture

Ironically, this was a difficult read. Not because the theme is hard to digest, or because Johnson's diction is criminally elevated (neither of those are true), but because I couldn't really decide whether I believed him.

The crux of Johnson's argument relies on the increasing complexity with which our popular culture is deliberately built, a complexity which forces its audience to multi-task, follow and understand multiple narrative threads, all the while developing advanced cognitive abilities and therefore becoming “smarter”. He then goes on to describe the high-level thinking required of modern video games, movies, television shows and the internet.

I agree with him on only one of four claims.

It's no secret that I love video games, so forgive the bias. Because of rapid technological advances, many of the newest video games play cinematically, feature engrossing characters, convoluted storylines and play right into Johnson’s argument. He frequently cites Grand Theft Auto and popular simulation-based games like Civilization and the cultural phenomenon The Sims as landmark games that challenge the intellect much more than PacMan. In these cases, I agree. These multifaceted games are possible because of technological innovation, and required with these improvements are players who can handle tasks of greater difficulty. As a footnote, it is a mystery why Johnson overlooked Myst, an inarguably difficult experience and once the all-time bestselling computer game as an example.

But when it comes to movies and television shows, I don’t buy it. Although both mediums have benefited from technology and increased budgets, saying that newer movies are more complicated than older movies is a stretch and Johnson definitely cherry-picks his examples. He compares “Bambi” to “Finding Nemo” as an example of this progression, citing that you have to follow the lives of twenty characters. Even though it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, you can process the majority of “Finding Nemo” by following Marlin, Dory and Nemo. He even cites the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is based on books that were written sixty years ago. To say that modern films are more complex today than they were in decades past is an obviously visual one, not one at all based on narrative technique. But that’s just me.

Finally, the most criminal case he makes is that of the internet. Like his modus operandi for the previous three arenas, Johnson picks only the true virtues of the internet to illustrate his point, and conveniently avoids the intellectual perils of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc. He also reassures us that though we are reading fewer books, we are “spend[ing:] much of [our:] day staring at words on a screen: browsing the Web, reading e-mail, chatting with friends, posting a new entry to … 8 million blogs” (183). Because nothing increases our intelligence like reading amateurish articles devoid of any proofreading. This is the kind of apologetic ass-covering that plagues this book from start to finish.

In short, no, I don’t think reality television promotes high-level thinking, movies today are no less compelling and layered than they were forty years ago, and reading blogs over published works by reputable authors doesn’t make you a smarter person. Sure, you can make an argument for each of those if you pick and choose, but all in all, I’m not sold.
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