Friday, January 20, 2006

Book review: Everything Bad is Good For You

Since we live in a postmodern age that treasures irony, here's one for you: Everything Bad is Good For You, which argues that today's popular culture is actually making us smarter, is a great example of the thoughtful, intellectually honest discourse that is sadly absent from today's society.

After spending countless hours on the Internet watching "arguments" degenerate into shouted slogans, reading Steven Johnson's well-reasoned book was refreshing, even if I don't completely agree. His argument is compelling -- for all the fuss over the supposed depravity and idiocy in today's entertainment (TV, video games, etc.), the complexity of that content is making us smarter.

The premise itself is intriguing, and his case is convincing. Today's entertainment is indeed complex -- we have TV shows with many intertwining plots, video games that ... well, befuddle aging computer jockeys like me, and the Internet is still on computers, no matter how much they dress it up.

Johnson even does the courtesy of addressing legit counterarguments. Through most of the book, I was thinking, "Sure, we're better at thinking complex thoughts, but are we losing the ability to think in linear terms?" Then he addressed it, saying that's where schools come in. I didn't think that was quite sufficient, but at least he addressed it.

So here's my problem: Kids today can think through complex video games and TV shows, but they can't understand a simple reading passage. And we still want some things simple -- otherwise, wouldn't Arrested Development be a hit?

Also notable: He claims the Internet is pulling us together because we can interact on it, which is impossible on TV. Fair point, but I'd offer two counterpoints. First, we have a drive to be sociable for which some have found the Net to be a cheap substitute -- instead of socializing with our neighbors, we're conversing only with people exactly like us on the Net. Second, TV once offered us some common threads on which to build our culture.

Also, I don't think it's quite fair to say that sitting in front of TV is less of a social activity just because we can't talk back. On the Net, many talk, but few listen.

As far as the historical comparison goes, Johnson is treating video games and so forth as an swap for passive TV viewing. But many people did much more than snooze in front of the tube. They read, they went out to museums, etc. Before WWII, they listened to radio, which required listener concentration and imagination to fill in the gaps. And plenty of kids my age were noodling around on guitars and so forth.

(Do kids still do that? It never ceases to amaze me that people who weren't that good in school can pick up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and perform feats of mental agility that Ph.D.s couldn't comprehend. There are stoners who can play Rush songs, for crying out loud.)

So the argument has flaws. But it's still a pretty good argument, and he's aware of its limitations. In today's "for us or against us" world, that's pretty nice.


Neel Mehta said...

Yay for book reviews! I hope to see more of them. There are a lot of social pundits out there writing them, and I'd enjoy hearing your take.

As for this book, you seemed to like it a little bit more than I did (click here). He lost a lot of goodwill by starting with videogames.

Arrested Development: I saw the first few, and appreciated them somewhat, but I never felt compelled to keep watching. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, the quirky celeb voiceover was a bit too precious, and the George Michael/Maeby thing (given their ages) made me uneasy. When a show gets a little too daring, I revert to prudishness.

bdure said...

I did indeed have a hard time giving that much credit to gamers, though it's hard to argue with relatively harmless ideas such as Tetris expanding one's grasp of spacial relationships. I'm old-school on video games -- I expect a few minutes of entertainment and nothing else. I love a lot of the old arcade games and I like the curling game on the CBC site, but I'm left a bit cold by games that require hours of study. If I'm going to study or practice something for hours, it had better teach me something practical, like healthy cooking or a guitar riff.

The George Michael storyline always skirted the line but managed to stay in bounds. And Ron Howard's voiceover got funnier in the last two seasons. Unlike Mary Alice in Desperate Housewives. Yeah, we get it, Mary Alice. Things aren't always as perfect as they seem. We figured that out five minutes into the pilot.