Steven Johnson’s contrarian book “Everything Bad is Good For You” argues that, for the past three decades, a combination of economic, technological and neurological forces have increased the complexity of popular culture. The result? Popular culture is causing us to exercise our minds in new and increasingly strenuous ways. In short, popular culture isn’t making us dumber, it is making us smarter.
To understand Johnson thesis it is essential to distinguish between the content and structure of pop culture. This is because Johnson is not applauding or even condoning the content of pop culture, what he is celebrating is how the increasing complexity of TV shows, video games and internet content is forcing us to work harder to explore, understand, engage and even guide, the content. Better yet, our brains want it this way. The result is a virtuous loop created within the pop culture industry. People who want and demand more engaging and complicated pop culture foster a media industry keen to serve it up. Don’t believe it? Try following Johnson’s advice and watch a TV show from 20 years ago. Invariably, you’ll quickly notice is how linear, simple and boring it is.
What makes this book compelling – particularly when juxtaposed against those who rant about the decline of culture – is its style. Everything Bad is Good For You is not a social commentary piece, anecdotally comparing a rose tinted past to the present (or vice versa). It is a book grounded in evidence and research relying, in particularly, on improving IQ tests as its principal data source. The result is a book filled with little gems. For example, contrary to all stereotypes, white collared professionals who play video games are actually more social, more confident and more adept at solving problems than their colleagues. Revenge of the nerds anyone?
The highlight though, was how the book provided an indirect explanation of a broader societal shift I’ve noticed, commented on, but have had difficulty articulating. Before it properly penetrated the popular consciousness the term ‘network’ kept cropping up in within Canada25. By the time we wrote From Middle to Model Power report the word was such a touchstone for the organization we decided to explicitly make it the central theme of the report. This turned out to be a wise decision.
Whenever I presented on or spoke about the report, the network theme resonated strongly, particularly but not exclusively, with younger members in the audience. Suddenly, everywhere I turned people were thinking in terms of networked systems. Up until this book I’d assumed that this was the result of the internet – that somehow its architecture was influencing how people thought and understood the world. It appears that that answer was only partly correct. Everything Bad is Good For You persuasively argues that the influences behind this emerging perspective are more pervasive than just the internet – they have permeated every medium of our pop culture including games, TV, movies, etc… Consequently, pop culture has been shaping the minds of an entire generation, turning them into system thinkers for whom the network is the structure they most naturally and intuitively identify with. Now there’s an idea I can’t wait to sink my teeth into further…
[tags] book review, Everything bad is good for you, steven johnson, popular culture[/tags]