Steven Johnson , Everything Bad is Good for You
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How pop culture is making us smarter
By now, anyone who dismisses pop culture as junk food can be silenced with two words: “The Wire.” (Or “The Sopranos” — take your pick.) The New Yorker now prints lucid, scientifically-backed arguments about the virtues of videogames, and Lady Gaga inspires dissertations. “Think of it as a kind of positive brainwashing,” Steven Johnson writes in 2005′s Everything Bad is Good for You. Mass culture, he argues, is more complex, nuanced, and intellectually demanding than ever before, and parents probably ought to think twice before yanking the console from their kids’ grubby paws.
By way of illustration — and there are many illustrations — Johnson compares the sub-mental pleasures of Pac-Man with the fiendishly interlinked objectives of the Legend of Zelda series and finds, not surprisingly, that Zelda wins. Today’s videogames, he says, demand long-term planning as much as short-term focus. “There is something profoundly lifelike in the art of probing and telescoping,” he writes of the modern gamer’s experience. There’s also the matter of TV: Compare Charlie’s Angels with 24 and the former looks like something produced by two teenagers and a monkey.
The versatile Johnson also cuts a fine figure as a media historian, exploring the origination of multiple-thread TV shows in a 1981 serial police drama called Hill Street Blues, and touching on that faded fringe literary phenomenon known as “hypertext.” Most interestingly, he explores why the market may be rewarding complexity. Are humans simply getting better? It sounds too good to be true. But Everything is optimistic, as well as persuasive. “The great unsung story of our culture today is how many welcome trends are going up,” Johnson writes. Those who lean toward the zingy commentary of Chuck Klosterman or the sociological sleuthing of Malcolm Gladwell will be pleased to find Johnson’s book.