Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Everything Bad is Good for You: Steven Johnson

Everything Bad is Good for You (EBGY) is a tribute to pop culture – an argument that the complexities ushered by the popular culture of today, particularly in the form of video games and television serials, have actually sharpened our cognitive faculties.

Inspired by Woody Allen’s mock sci-fi movie Sleeper, Steven Johnson introduces the concept of the Sleeper Curve: “The most debased forms of mass diversion—video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms—turn out to be most nutritional after all.”

Starting from an American Professional Baseball Association (APBA) card game Steven played as a child, and using examples of a whole range of games like Pacman, Dungeons & Dragons, Ultima, EverQuest, Grand Theft Auto, and Age of Empires, EBGY debunks some popular myths about games and makes a strong case for (video) games. Some of the conclusions Steven draws – games are about delayed gratification; games are hard and hence not always fun; games hit at the reward circuitry of the brain; and the key in games is deciphering the rules – are interesting, insightful, and logical.

Using examples from serials of the past like Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Frasier, and Starsky & Hutch, and the more-modern day ones like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, ER, The Sopranos, and Desperate Housewives, among others, EBGY argues that there are three facets of television serials today – multiple threading, flashing arrows, and social networks – that make them more complex and cognitively more enriching than those of the past.

EBGY also touches on the Internet as another facet that is contributing to pop culture, with the almost inevitable nod to Google (“Google is our culture’s principal way of knowing about itself”). A brief mention of films rounds up the Sleeper Curve argument. (Steven’s assertion that Lord of the Rings is more complex than Star Wars, while true in terms of the parameters he has used, might not go down too well with some Star Wars fans.)

In the second part of this two-part book, Steven touches on how the complexity of the environment has led to an increase in the average IQ of humans (using the results of James Flynn’s investigation of IQ tests). And, while Steven himself admits that the link between the IQ increase and popular media is hypothetical, suggesting that the link is logical is probably a bit ambitious. And that perhaps is the weakest ground Steven stands on in the entire book.

In a sense, what Steven seems to be attacking in EBGY is an innate human preference for the past over the present, the concept of the “good old days.” And in a battle like this, he has the cards stacked against him, from two angles: his work is going to be approached by people with a fair degree of skepticism, and the past is always likely to have more data support than the future (there will always more dead geniuses than living ones).

Notwithstanding that, EBGY, is a good “old-fashioned work of persuasion.” A great example of this is the argument he makes when he takes a hypothetical situation: What if books had followed video games in the chronological order of things? This defense of video games (pages 19-20 in the hardbound Allen Lane Penguin edition of 2005) alone makes the book worth reading.

One final word: on the title itself. Everything Bad is Good for You sounds a touch desperate, a tad too deliberately contrarian, if you ask me. (As an aside, a colleague saw the book and thought I was into self-help books now.) May be Steven could’ve called the book The Sleeper Curve, in the tradition of The Tipping Point and The Long Tail?

Tailpiece: You will do well to keep an eye on one of Steven Johnson’s sites – Surely an idea for the future.

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