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 â€” combined with both market and public-sector forces â€” 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.