Everything Bad is Good for You

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2005

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to read Steven Johnson?s new book, Everything Bad is Good for You:

Drawing from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and literary theory, Johnson argues that the junk culture we?re so eager to dismiss is in fact making us more intelligent. A video game will never be a book, Johnson acknowledges, nor should it aspire to be ? and, in fact, video games, from Tetris to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto, have been shown to raise IQ scores and develop cognitive abilities that can?t be learned from books. Likewise, successful television, when examined closely and taken seriously, reveals surprising narrative sophistication and intellectual demands.

To me, the most interesting question about the whole issue is whether the kind of learning that Johnson focuses on in the book outweighs the potentially negative aspects of what is generally thought of as our dumbed down and getting dumber culture?in some ways, it?s a question of the importance of how we learn versus what we learn. Unfortunately, that question lies largely outside the scope of the book and is probably an entire book of its own, but I still asked Steven about it in an email I sent him shortly after finishing the book. Here?s a gently edited excerpt:

It was hard for me to read about pop culture making us smarter because I?m so conditioned to think otherwise, but in the specific way you describe, I absolutely agree with your arguments. There?s obviously a lot more effort and learning involved watching The Apprentice than in watching The Joker?s Wild. The gaming bit of the book even influenced my thinking on this post about Katamari Damacy.

I guess I?m still kind of wondering if the positive effect you talk about balances out the negative effects (if any). If TV these days is conditioning us to be more socially agile (as far as keeping track of social connections), what else is it conditioning us to think and feel? Maybe that?s outside the question of whether it?s making us smarter or not. I ran across this interview of David Foster Wallace from 1993 a couple of weeks ago, and Wallace is a notorious TV critic, although I think he would pretty much agree with most of EBIGFY:

?But what?s seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV?s seductions are. It?s seldom acknowledged that viewers? relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound.?

But I don?t think he?d agree that TV is good for you:

?I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art.?

Is media whose primary purpose (through, as you argue, the addition of complexity) is to spend more time in the lives of the people who consume it (through repeat viewings, game replayings, etc.) really good for people? I have doubts.

Near the end of the book, you offhandedly introduce the familiar metaphor of the media diet (I think it?s only mentioned once on p194). Dunno why exactly, but it really grabbed me. On the one hand, it?s taken for granted among people I know who tend to consume lots of media that media is something that needs be approached in a dietary sense. I need to read more or watch less TV or watch better TV or balance out my online reading with some books?that?s just how we think now. I don?t think that concept existed 20-30 years ago but now there?s so much media that we need to balance it all. Tying that back into food, the hunter gatherers wouldn?t have known what a balanced diet was because they were eating an all meat and wild fruit/veg diet, basically whatever they could get their hands on. When agriculture rolled around and was greatly enhanced by industrialization, we were overwhelmed by choice and the idea of a balanced diet became a possibility and necessity.

At the same time, we have a situation in the US now where food is engineered to maximize the amount purchased by an individual. That means larger portions of high-sugar, high-fat foods?.lots and lots of stuff that tastes good and makes you want to eat more of it as soon as possible. And it?s making us fat and unhealthy. Media is engineered to work much the same way and I?m wondering if that?s a good thing.

For those that want to read more about it, the book and the ideas contained therein have been excerpted in a couple of places already:

- Watching TV Makes You Smarter (NY Times Magazine)
- Everything Bad Goes Public (stevenberlinjohnson.com)
- Dome Improvement (Wired magazine)

and is being discussed in various corners of the blogosphere and in the media:

-Comments on Watching TV Makes You Smarter (kottke.org)
- Comments on Everything Bad Goes Public (kottke.org)
- Sparklines (Almost) in the Times, and Complexity Is Good For You (Anil Dash)
- Get Smart (Reason Online)
- Thinking Outside the Idiot Box (Slate)
- sleeper curve economics (Michael Sippey)
- Are Video Games Good for You? (Michael J. Madison)
- Don?t kill your television (Salon)
- Children, Eat Your Trash! (Time)
- Does watching TV make you stupid? (Stay Free!)
- Brain candy (Boston Globe)
- Bad is Good (The Sunday Times)

And Steven is trying to keep up with it all on his web site.

Reader comments

Josh PopeMay 05, 2005 at 5:29PM

I haven’t read this book, but to me it seems to fall into the same definition on which you labeled Michael Moore - he takes a position and defends it to the end.

Maybe we are getting smarter due to media, but is it at the cost of disintigration of unique and identifiable cultural identities? Does it lead to the homogenization of culture and identity? Is he referencing only pre-mass media to present day, or does he speculate the direction our corporate controlled media is heading?

I have been curious about this book. I suppose I should read it.. But you know it never hurts to ask.

D. FieldsMay 05, 2005 at 5:50PM

Jerry Mander wrote a great book called “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”.

Pretty interesting read. Definitely worth checking out.

I don’t remember all of his arguments, but one that stuck with me is that nature and cooking shows are substituting our desires to venture to these places in real life. Instead of increasing our desire to see the exotic locales, we’re actually being appeased by them as if it’s real.

AkaXakAMay 05, 2005 at 6:10PM

Actually, this different stimulus is stimulating us in different ways, thus making us ‘smarter’ in a different way.

I.E. We’re becoming better at _other_ things.

That’s not to say that while some retain their ‘smartness’ in other areas too, others will lose out on being ‘smart’ in areas.

PS. I like the new comment area.

videlicetMay 05, 2005 at 6:41PM

rocketboom’s bosten correspondent had an interview with SBJ yesterday :D


NicholasMay 05, 2005 at 11:09PM

I’ve always hated the argument that pop culture = bad. Most of what society considers great literay works were in fact pop culture at one time: Shakespeare, Greak tragedies, Illiad and the Oddessey, Cantebury Tales, and Bewulf just to name a few. Many of those were even pretty “raunchy” by their standards. Even works like Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings were hoopahed as “pop culture.” Today, The Lord of the Rings seems to be rounding the corner and is being accepted more and more as serious literature. Give it another 100 years, and I’m sure it will be considered a major work of the time. For that matter, in 200 years, Pulp Fiction and E.T. will probably be considred major works of our time. Can you even begin to imagine what socialigist will make of the Apprentice and Survivor in 500 years. It’ll be a great glimpse into early 21st century life.

Steven JohnsonMay 06, 2005 at 12:27AM

Just for the record: Jason’s whole idea of the media diet is a very smart and nuanced riff on an almost passing aside in the book, and ever since he wrote about it an his email to me I’ve been compulsively talking about the idea of media diets in practically every interview I’ve done, with zero credit to Jason for bringing it into focus. But what better place to give the man props than his own comments thread?

Thank you, wise Kottke.

DaveMay 06, 2005 at 3:03AM

The thing you mention that scares me the most is how addictive modern pop culture can be. I don’t really watch much TV, but a huge amount of my life has been wasted on the internet, with not much to show for it; some of the things I’ve come across have been worthwhile, but the vast majority, sadly, have been fleeting and trivial, and left me with the uneasy sense of having flushed perfectly good hours away. So why can’t I just give it up?!

LeeMay 06, 2005 at 4:15AM

I think the idea of a media diet is probably appropriate. TV has definitely opened my eyes and made me smarter and more knowledgeable, especially on subjects I would never normally look at. On the other hand, watching a lot of reality TV (or trash TV in general) probably won’t increase your IQ, but it may well help you understand people better, possibly increase your social skills and ask you to look at the world around you.

I guess it depends on how you ‘read’ TV and other media. If you sit back and let it passively wash over you, you won’t gain much, if you try and think beyond simply what is onscreen, then it starts to engage and challenge you.

As a film nerd I can tell you that the same accusation has been levelled at movies: that they are becoming dumber. This is mainly argued in the case of films which tell you everything (literally through exposition more often) instead of letting you interprete it. Many critics of film (and indeed TV) label it a passive medium, with no room for interaction. I don’t believe this is so.

Our access to information in all forms is much greater than it has ever been in our history, that means programme makers are forced to become more sophisticated. There seems to be this reasoning (by some stuffy academic twits generally) that any media form that hasn’t been around for a hundred years is somehow of less value than those that have.

videlicetMay 06, 2005 at 8:08AM

re: “why can’t I just give it up?!”

i’ve been reading thomas de zengotita’s ‘mediated’, about how the defining characterisitc of our current age is that our lives are optionable, which in some respects might be considered a companion book to ‘EBiGfY’. (as might douglas rushkoff’s forthcoming ‘get back in the box’, about how to reconnect more permanently — and meaningfully — with the wider world where it seems the very idea of identity, or at least individuality, may be adrift :) anyway, he says one reason why you may compulsively read reviews rather than the Ding an sich is because it forces you into a POV that might not suit you, that may not “flatter the self,” in his language. and what are we put on this world for if our egos are not to be flattered?

like in whit stillman’s metropolitan where erstwhile social outcast tom townsend, asked about how many jane austen novels he’s read, responds:

“None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.”

faced with multiplying choice, we explore the subjunctive realm of the hypothetical and counterfactual — the “what if” — rather than face the prospect of going through with something all the way, the whole enchilada as it were — the fixed, final, immutable conclussion and commitment of “is.” [..as in the predetermined, fatalistic “that is the way of things,” which is soooo yesterday… can anything be so encompassing? the is of it all! (“isness” btw is still ok, as it is only like “is,” if you get my meaning :)]

this is what reviews, and the internet, offers us. instead of ‘actual’ experience (altho de zengotita argues that “actual experience” has indeed become somewhat of a performance as the mediated world has expanded — encapsulating the old worldbit by bit, version after version, into “the blob,” as he terms it) we get a sampling of alternatives in a veritable garden of forking paths. even mediated experience, when partitioned as in a book, movie or amusement park, can sometimes seem a chore when stacked up against all the other possibilities; the opportunity costs and unfortunate casualties of choice.

the “problem” (when our whole lives are set off in quotes :) is that the ambiguity can engender an infantile disorder (or at least adolescent and perhaps narcissitic) whose attitude when applied to a whole population (or at least generation and perhaps white :) becomes neotenic, that is retardedly juvenile. on a civilizational level, jared diamond warns us, the resulting behavior from such an attitude — say, that ‘everything bad is good for you’ or an exasperated/apathetic ‘whatever’ — can lead to collapse… now, i’m not saying it will, i’m just noting the tendency! (see congress :) and, it may very well be, that a studied ambiguity, attended by fact, provides a future probability distribution from which society can make informed choices to prioritize its actions so as to realize it dreams. it may very well be! or equally important, it could help someone decide what show to watch or site to visit next :D as jean-luc picard sez, “make it so!”


JoshMay 06, 2005 at 9:20AM

I’m really looking forward to reading SBJ’s book—I like that it takes such a provocative position. Not having read it yet, I don’t have much to say re: the main discussion here.

I will say, though, that it is not true that today’s great literature or art was yesterday’s pop culture. Certainly it isn’t true about something like Chaucer, and to imagine the Iliad as “pop culture” is really to have missed out on how the Iliad and the Greek drama were performed and received—they were far closer to “ritual” than “pop,” and we don’t really have anything in our modern world that approximates the form of the Greek epic. Read Eric Havelock, for example, on this point. Shakespeare is, in fact, the exception that proves the rule. And Tolkien will, I think, never be read as literature “proper,” except inasmuch as cultural studies have broadened our view of what literature can be.

By far, the great art we look back on today was under-read and under-valued at the time it was created. There’s been a lot of recent writing on the web and elsewhere—the “rockism” debate comes to mind—that paints pop culture as some kind of underdog against artistic or literary culture. This could not be more wrong-headed. I don’t think this is what SBJ is arguing in the book (although I haven’t read it yet)—his argument sounds a lot more nuanced—but it’s an argument that is always creeping into discussions of the book, and I think it’s a wrong argument. Just thought I’d say that.

Second, there is a great book out by Jonathan Crary called Suspensions of Perception that’s worth reading in this connection. He’s an art history professor at Columbia, and his book is about, essentially, the development of the modern media landscape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It stops short of television, although it does gesture a little in that direction…. Anyway, Crary cites, among other things, studies about the ‘addictive’ nature of television, and makes the point, following writers like Foucalt, that our current state of “distraction,” or of serially monogamous attention, where a day is broken up in terms of what media you pay attention to (tv in the morning, blogs after breakfast, iPod at lunch, blogs after lunch, computer work in the afternoon, iPod on the subway, tv at night) is highly constructed and part of a giant money-making apparatus. The more trained we are to pay attention to all of these media, the more hours a day we are consuming and paying to consume. (The book is actually much better than what I just wrote, btw).

Anyhow, I suppose I’m trying to say: the idea of the media diet is a good one, but, just as recent studies show that a lower caloric intake makes you live longer, a smaller media diet could well be better for you. I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if developments in neuroscience (of the kind described in _Mind Wide Open_) prove beyond a doubt that there is a certain brain state created when we are in media-attention-mode, from which it is hard to exit, and for which we are increasingly neurologically trained. There is a real ongoing research effort in this area in neuroscience.

Just some thoughts… I look forward very much to the book.

JoshMay 06, 2005 at 9:48AM

Okay, just one more comment here:

From what I’ve read so far, SBJ’s book makes the argument that more complex cognitive media (like TV and video games) have led to an increasee in cognitive ‘IQ’ over the last X decades. I have no doubt that this is true, and I like that argument a lot; I also like the idea that we can become more discriminating media consumers—that’s pretty awesome. And to a large extent the cognitive abilities the ecerpts have talked about are either narrative cognition or what you could call synthetic cognition—like interpreting complex displays of information very quickly. Inasmuch as we’ve talked about a “media diet,” we’ve talked about diversifying your media diet amongst these two kinds of cognitive tasks. (As an aside, this “media diet” thing is funny: they used it to describe the ‘new’ medium of the novel in the 19th c. too, talking about novels as puddings, pasties, hearty meals and sticky sweets, etc.)

I just wanted to add, as against this vision of the media diet, that non-modern media have their specific cognitive tasks too, and that they should be included in the media diet. For example, literature is not only about narrative or about reading; it’s also about visual imagination, which is a particular cognitive task and pleasure. Check out Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book; the task of visual imagination is not one that video games or television can provide.

Or, in contrast to the highly interpretive cognitive tasks demanded by television, what about the highly contemplative, sustained cognitive tasks associated with visual arts like painting or plastic arts like sculpture? These are also cognitive experiences that are completely neglected in a media landscape played out entirely by moving images around on screens. The experience of “seeing” a painting or a sculpture is entirely different from the experience of “seeing” a screen—shouldn’t that be part of the media diet?

Or, what about the arithmetical tasks associated with a game like chess (which SBJ talks about on his blog)? Or the arithmetical / musical tasks associated with Bach’s “Art of Fugue” (or Fennesz’ “Endless Summer”)? Or the tasks of physical cognition relating to sports or athletic activity? These are all just as cognitively ‘real’ an experience as TV or videogames—they should also be part of the media diet.

Finally what about “daydream”—also a cognitive task? As Crary writes, the daydream will always be a refuge from the coercions of media and other attention-demanding parts of our culture. Presumably that kind of mental free play ought to also be a part of the media diet.

So: there is a wider context here. Obviously we need to push ourselves in terms of narrative cognition, which is why 24 is better than Fear Factor; but in general we need to recognize that every attentive task is a cognitive task, even “contemplative” tasks, and that to the extent we limit our access to those states we limit our experience of the possibilities of mind. The actually balanced media diet would not include only tv, music, books, and the web, but would include a lot of “media” that don’t seem like media at first glance.

Just checked my library catalog… this book is still ‘on order.’ Arg!

the walking partyMay 06, 2005 at 3:17PM

shouldn’t it be EBIGFY?


BudyMay 06, 2005 at 4:09PM

i ‘spose it’s good that media is making society smarter… making an educated, informed choice on which brand of insulin will best stave off our diabetes ailments will be totally sweet.

Jon GalesMay 08, 2005 at 9:08PM

I see your post written up as a review on Amazon, but it looks to be posted by someone else (by R. Spoon “beRecruited.com” ). What’s the deal?

Great book!

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.