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And the argument rambles on. The Internet? It’s interactive, and the continual introduction of new technologies (email, IM, blogs, software applications, etc.) never lets your mind rest. By this logic, Bill Gates has done the country a great favor with his successive generations of schizophrenic software — you may call it troubleshooting, Johnson calls it “collateral learning.” Films? Well, clearly kid’s movies (Finding Nemo, Toy Story, etc.) are more complicated than they used to be. He makes a gesture towards arguing that there is a new breed of “mindbenders,” but three of the 11 movies he mentions as evidence of this were written by Charlie Kaufman (is it a man or a movement?). Films really haven’t changed all that much, he finally admits, because the two- or three-hour format brooks only so much complexity — whereas a TV show like 24 can go on for literally a whole day.
The net effect of all this “complexification” (yes, it’s a word, I looked it up) is that the average American IQ score has been rising about three points per decade. This is even as performance on subject related tests has stagnated or dropped. Taken together, such results clearly indicate just who we are: a screen-addled and increasingly mal-educated populace.
Reasonable man that he is, Johnson has darker thoughts than the soft-brained sanguinity of the title. 24, he admits, really only challenges the intellect of someone of average intelligence; his book is about a mass effect on the masses — the trend of “lowbrow and middlebrow culture.” He’s not arguing that we live in an intellectual Elysium; he just wants to counter the school marms of our culture who’ve been crying doomsday for so long that it’s become common wisdom. He certainly doesn’t argue that the modest increase in IQ scores compensates for the dismal state of American education, or that the decrease in book-reading is not worrisome, or that the average American’s daily diet of four hours of television is healthy. “It’s not all bad,” he’s saying. And, of course, he’s right.
But Americans require very little encouragement toward self-satisfaction, and the nuances of Johnson’s argument are sure to be lost as it echoes out into the culture. Already within his own book, Johnson at times seems possessed by a publicist’s spirit: he talks of “pop culture’s race to the top,” raising “a generation of cognitive superstars,” the “rich social geography that all reality programming explores,” and my favorite, “the exploratory wonder in downloading a new application” (he means figuring out how to use iTunes). God help us all if such hype becomes the new common wisdom. To argue that there are some peripheral benefits to our diversions is one thing — but if Americans secure a belief in the outright virtue of absorbing primetime television, playing PS2, or writing an email, the doomsayer’s prophecy of an immovable nation might very well come true.