Steven Johnson is a compelling magazine writer. I read his article (now doomed to paid-archive purgatory) in the NY Times Magazine with more than engaged interest, because it gave a surprisingly counterintuitive explanation of the impact of popular culture on society. The article did its job, too, because it made me want to read his new book Everything Bad Is Good for You.
If you’ve read the NYT Mag article and the Wired Magazine article, as I had, you may want to reconsider whether to bother with the book. In the NYT Mag article, Johnson gives a thorough explanation of how, exactly, current television is more sophisticated than the TV of 25 years ago. Compare The Sopranos, say, to Rockford Files, or even Survivor to Battle of the Network Stars. Whether you compare the highbrow shows or the bottom of the barrel, modern TV comes out on top.
In the Wired article, Johnson discusses a curious phenomenon called the Flynn effect, the observation that IQ scores have been increasing at an astounding and regular rate for the past 75 years. He points out that "if someone testing in the top 18 percent the year FDR was elected were to time-travel to the middle of the Carter administration, he would score at the 50th percentile." This rise in IQ scores is in astounding opposition to other measures of academic performance — for example SAT scores have not exhibited a concurrent increase over the same time period (one problem with Johnson’s argument is that he fails to acknowledge that the SAT decline is subject to serious debate. So it’s possible that better schools are responsible for the IQ rise). The logical next step is to argue that if schools are not responsible for the increase in IQ, popular culture must be: the fact that we’re playing more sophisticated video games and watching more complex TV shows and movies is the only possible explanation for the Flynn effect. This seems to me to be a rather large logical leap to make, but I’m willing to let it slide for the moment.
Johnson’s fascinating discussion of current video games is probably the most important reason to consider reading Everything Bad Is Good for You. Video games in 2005 aren’t so much like the video games of 1980 as they are like the complicated role-playing games that emerged in that time period. If you played Dungeons and Dragons or any of its spin-offs or knock-offs back then, you were ripe for casting in Revenge of the Nerds. If you have a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City today, you’re very likely one of the coolest kids on the block. But, Johnson argues, whether you play D&D or GTA, you’re doing pretty much the same thing. Mastery of D&D may have required memorizing three volumes of manuals, but one popular online guide to Grand Theft Auto III exceeds 53,000 words. Johnson points out that the tasks required to complete a current video game are not merely feats of manual dexterity:
I call the mental labor of managing all these simultaneous tasks "telescoping" because of the way the objectives nest inside one another like a collapsed telescope. . . . You can’t progress far in a game if you simply deal with the puzzles you stumble across; you have to coordinate them with the ultimate objectives on the horizon. Talented gamers have mastered the ability to keep all these varied objectives alive in their heads simultaneously.
Out of context, it’s difficult to tell whether this quote refers to video games of the 21st century or role-playing games of the 1980s, and that’s exactly Johnson’s point.
Everything Bad has had its share of reviews and press, from Malcolm Gladwell’s glowing endorsement in the New Yorker, to Steven Zeitchik’s rather more qualified appraisal in the Chicago Tribune. As Johnson gleefully points out on his blog, he even made the cover of New York’s Time Out magazine, along with borderline-mainstream writer Chuck Palahniuk (make sure you click the link for an amusing image).
While the reviews of Johnson’s work express varying degrees of satisfaction with Johnson’s writing style, or the logic in his argument, none that I’ve read take a particularly close look at the psychology behind Everything Bad. The scientific data he cites, to my mind, is quite thin. This isn’t necessarily Johnson’s fault: there just isn’t a lot of data there. Yes, the Flynn effect has been well documented, but Johnson isn’t just arguing for a rise in intelligence; he’s arguing that the cause of this rise is the increasing complexity of popular culture. Yet to support this he cites only one study directly linking the two: a 2003 experiment linking certain visual abilities to playing video games. However, this same study also shows that even non-gamers demonstrate the same increased abilities after just a week of playing games — this seems hardly enough to account for a century’s worth of IQ increases. A second study correlates gaming with social and problem-solving skills, but this simple correlation doesn’t show that popular culture is causing the IQ rise: the opposite could be true, or the two trends might simply be coincidental. I’m not saying the research contradicts Johnson’s conclusion; I’m saying the research he cites doesn’t support it. Indeed, given the astonishing trends Johnson details in his book, it’s surprising that more research hasn’t been done on the subject. My own inquiries into the area have found a few more studies than Johnson mentions, but nothing of the scope and scale to support Johnson’s lofty claims. What I have found is plenty of evidence — which Johnson acknowledges, but glosses over — of some of the harmful effects of popular culture, such as the causal link between violent media and aggression and even physical violence.
In the end, Johnson backs away a bit from the argument promised by the book’s title: we shouldn’t, for example, stop reading books and educate ourselves solely through television and video games. Grand Theft Auto may be a complicated game, but it’s got nothing on, say, Shakespeare. He even acknowledges that he hasn’t exactly proven anything: what he’s offering is a hypothesis to explain both the phenomenal rise in IQ in the 20th century and the increase in complexity of our popular culture. While it may not be an ironclad argument, it’s certainly enough to get you thinking.
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