Johnson: Everythign Bad Is Good for You (2006)

Everything Bad is Good for You Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson attempts to de-bunk the popular narrative that the culture industry is making us stupider, by feeding us more and more banal television shows, video games, and movies. He argues for understanding a Sleeper Curve in popular culture that is actually making texts more complicated over time. That is, many video games, television shows, Internet sites, and movies are making us smarter by challenging out mental faculties: we have to make more mental and social connections, these texts leave out information that we have to figure out, and they rely on delayed gratification, and we have to figure out the rules of the game/text because they aren’t told to us explicitly.

Johnson shows that IQ tests scores have been improving over the last few decades, and while it’s problematic to compare IQ tests across cultures, races, and locations (because the tests probably are biased), it’s not as problematic to compare them across generations. (He readily admits that IQ tests don’t actually test all of our mental capacities, but rather serve as an indicator that at least gives us some data.)

I think Johnson provides some pretty good nuance to his book and gives some pretty strong evidence for his case. A lot of the first half of the book reads like James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Can Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, though without the methodological explanation and some of the depth. Additionally, Johnson is clear to explain that he’s not advocating quitting reading books, and that books do provide a kind of intellectual work unique to them. He’s less likely to see declined book reading as a threat to culture, because he notes that all sorts of activities are in decline (television viewing, movie going, etc.). Also, he’s not advocating playing video games 24/7, and he cautions that his book is not about the effects of texts’ contents (e.g., violence, sexism, etc.). He argues that “[t:]he work of the critic, in this instance, is to diagram those forces [neurological appetites, economics of culture industry, changing technological platforms:], not decode them” (10).

Overall, this is a pretty good read and makes a convincing case. I am inclined to agree with him, though I do wonder more about the economic effects of all of this, and who benefits and who is left out of his narrative. Johnson, defending himself against critiques of his book that he is supporting capitalism, notes that some of the effects of gaming culture have been to question capitalist notions of private property, and also states that he sees himself as “much more of a technological determinist than an economic determinist.” He doesn’t want to ask “What is capitalism doing to our minds? Rather, the question is: What is the reigning technological paradigm — combined with both market and public-sector forces — doing to our minds?” (205). While I don’t see myself as much of a determinist, I do think there is much to be said of the economic consequences (who is getting rich, and who is “feeding” those that get rich). Additionally, what does it much matter if we are getting cognitively smarter when most those energies are focused on perpetuating a capitalist system? Okay, that’s cynical. It matters. But, from my vantage point, systems analysis needs to be coupled with an imagination for what’s outside the system: what other worlds are possible, and how can they be achieved? Perhaps this is best left to follow up work to Johnson’s text.

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4 Responses to Johnson: Everythign Bad Is Good for You (2006)

  1. amd says:

    I really ended up enjoying this book more than I expected. That same line about economic/technological determinism gave me pause, but I had forgotten it. I’m glad you pointed it out. I have a tendency to pick up books like this (maybe I mean books that share this book’s target audience) and then to put them back down again before finishing.

    It was the piece about television, and the complexity of the narratives in shows today, that I think really captured my attention more than the gaming piece (which did feel like I had read it before). I just had a long internet argument about someone where our main point of disagreement – though I couldn’t get her to see it – was that I think a tv show can have complexity like a novel can, and she doesn’t. So it was really pointless for us to continue to talk about whether character B was “good” or “bad” – we weren’t even talking about the same thing. I was watching the West Wing earlier this week and thinking that even that show, which Johnson uses repeatedly as an example of complexity, seems simple compared to Battlestar Galactica and the Wire. And I do think my brain is better for it.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, AM! I completely agree that a television show can have the complexity of a novel, and so does Johnson, it seems. There are two conversations going on that can’t seem to understand they don’t have stasis (in the Ciceronian sense): They aren’t even talking about the same thing.

    TV is especially complicated now that it can draw on other media, like the Internet, as is the case in the ARG I discussed in my previous post.

  3. Darius K. says:

    Thanks for the review! I probably won’t read it, since I’ve read Gee’s book already.

  4. Michael says:

    It does have some things to say that Gee doesn’t. If you ever pick up a copy, you might just read Part 2, which is only about 50 pages, I think. Part 1 on television is also pretty interesting — but he spends most of Part 1 discussing video games, in a similar vein as Gee.

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