Everything Bad is Good For You
256 pages, $23.95
We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness… if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything, it never gets up again.
One of the first lessons a young reviewer learns, once the thrill of receiving free books subsides, is how to separate the author’s words from the publisher’s. Measured truth doesn’t sell well, and authors, by nature overly deliberative and insufficiently proud, require the goading of the white smiles in the PR department to give their titles pop. This is most transparent in books that purport to shock(!) you with their ideas — of course, Everything Bad is Good for You poses such a danger.
Veteran and sage belle-lettrist that I am, I’ve developed a fail-safe method when approaching such manifestoes of the future: in order to penetrate the hype to the author’s point, all you need to do is add the phrase “sort of” or “in a way” to the title or subtitle. This has saved me hours of eye-rolling and irritation. Cleansed of hyperbole, Steven Johnson’s levelheaded assessment of mass culture becomes: Everything Bad is Good for You (Sort of): How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually (in a Way) Making Us Smarter. With sobriety restored, we can proceed to the writer’s argument — that the products of American popular culture have been “steadily, but almost imperceptibly, making us smarter.”
No matter how sympathetic you are to the idea, it’s essential to begin by understanding the terms of the debate. As an apologist for something as vast and uneven as pop culture, Johnson is certainly vulnerable to criticism, and nothing could be easier. But since we are all reasonable human beings (i.e. not publicists), our man deserves a fair hearing. So here goes. First, content is irrelevant; what matters is the relative complexity. Seinfeld, a show about nothing, is one of Johnson’s favorite examples because it makes this explicit. From his standpoint, the show was just a platform for a number of maneuvers that force “mental labor.” Which brings us to the second fundamental assumption: this cerebral labor of making sense of Seinfeld is beneficial, causing “collateral learning” even as you sink deep in your chair, secure in the mindlessness of the diversion. This learning, which improves one’s faculty for problem solving, can be applied to any problem, not just making sense of a Seinfeld gag. And so: on to the meat.
Video games, TV, the Internet, and to a lesser extent films (music is hardly mentioned) all force thought on the audience more than they used to. He begins with video games, since they are the most misunderstood. The Sims, Zelda, and Grand Theft Auto are tremendously successful video games, and they are all, ignoring the content, a tremendous constellation of problems. It’s very difficult to navigate your way through them, and nobody tells you how. As easy proof of this, he points to the booming market for game guides, which are essentially Cliffs Notes for gamers. No one needs much convincing that contemporary games are more complicated than the games of yesteryear; nevertheless, a number of diagrams are provided to clinch the superior difficulty of Zelda to Pac-Man.
With TV, the case is not so simple. His favorite examples are The Sopranos, 24, ER, The West Wing, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld. The Sopranos and 24 entertain their viewers with a small village of characters and a mess of intersecting plots; ER and The West Wing dazzle with each’s own brand of babble; the comedy of both The Simpsons and Seinfeld is based largely on a rapid fire of references (to pop culture and past episodes) — and yet all of these shows are wildly popular. They are popular despite the fact that TV executives would have been terrified of a befuddled nation tuning out such apparent complexity 20 years ago. The dim comparisons of the past here are the erstwhile avant-garde Hill Street Blues, the loosely tangled Dallas, and the set-‘em-up-and-knock-‘em-down sitcoms of yore. Because Johnson doesn’t want us to think that he’s cherry-picking, even Survivor and The Bachelor, which he uncharitably describes as “crap,” compare favorably with their crappy forbears — the psychological gamesmanship of reality shows works the brain much more than Love Boat or Battle of the Network Stars.