Bad is Good
Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
by Stephen Johnson
I wanted to like this book more than I did, because frankly I’m sympathetic to the argument, but I came away rather disappointed.
First off, I would have been shocked if he didn’t at least make mention of Marshall McCluhan since his argument is essentially a challenge to McCluhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” without actually positioning it as such. McCluhan meant that the most influential aspect of any particular medium is not the message being transferred, but how the medium itself affects the user. Johnson argues that content is in fact vital; that the complexity of the content, the degree to which it challenges one’s cognitive abilities, has a profound affect on a person and ultimately society as a whole.
While he does claim that there is evidence to support this premise, the data he presents is actually pretty thin and cannot be attributable unequivocally in the way that he suggests. Most of his arguments are based on his personal theories and observations; not until p. 153, almost three-quarters of the way through the book are any actual scientific experiments mentioned.
I did like his observation that “pop culture is in a race to the top.” Counter to the conventional wisdom that the media is becoming increasingly vapid, he claims that it is in fact becoming ever more challenging. As an example, this is shown through the use of interleved plots and complex character interactions on the most popular television programs. But is this really true? He grants that the books of Charles Dickens, the most popular author of his day, were excedingly complex, but were in fact only enjoyed by a far smaller percentage of the population than today’s mass media (I think this is debatable). Television may be getting more complex but this might just be because of the age of the medium itself, not because society at large is better able to understand complexity.
He theorizes that the Flynn Effect, the observation made in 1970s by James Flynn that standard IQs have been steadily increasing, may be attributed to the growing challenges of the mass media. But the hallmark of any modern society is its ever-increasing specialization and complexity. Are we making more demands of the media, or is it making more demands of us?