This is a book note about Everything Bad Is Good for You by Stephen Johnson. Very intersting. Argues that popular culture has become more intellectually challenging over the past 30 years, and has made us smarter. Click "Continue readying" to read the note.
As the author notes, this book is intended to persuade readers of the truth of the proposition that popular culture has grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past 30 years. Mr. Johnson calls this "the Sleeper Curve." He backs this up by analyzing video games, television, the Internet, and movies. He then looks for evidence of effects of the Sleeper Curve, notes what is not affected, and finally considers the moral effects of the media he analyzes.
These things are difficult! Mr. Johnson gets exactly right a point I have always thought of when I read education pundits claiming that instant rewards are more important for students today because of videogames:
"The dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun. You may be frustrated; you may be confused or disoriented; you may be stuck. When you put the game dodwn and move back into the real world, you may find yourself mentally working through the problem you've been wrestlying with.... If this is mindless escapism, it's a strangely masochistic version."
Any one who has played these games knows that they are ambiguous. It is often unclear what you should do to achieve your objective. The player must try things, learn from the results, and try more things, then think again. James Paul Gee, a scholar who studies video games, calls this pattern "probing", and notes its similaritty to the scientific method.
Another aspect of the intellectual challenge of these games is called "telescoping." This involves keeping many layers of nested objectives in mind, and especially a focus on the near-term in the context of long-term goals.
Television has increased its intellectual demands over the last 30 years through increased narrative complexity, more enigmas, increased cultural references and layers, and more social complexity.
Mr. Johnson produces some pretty cool charts evidencing the increased number of narrative strands in popular television shows, and the increasing number of those strands that any one scene in the show advances. He notes Hill Street Blues as the first show that began this process in prime time. This is interesting for me, as I happened to see that first episode when it originally aired, and can remember relating in some detail the plot of the show to others over the next few days, and talking about how different it was.
Modern shows also allow more enigmas to exist than was true in the past. By this, he means that more items within a scene may be unexplained at the time they first appear, forcing the viewer to retain those items in awareness until a subsequent event provides an explanation. Also, there will be items or characters whose relevance to the various plot lines may be unclear at the time, and then later turn out to have been something of a "distractor" where the intellectual challenge is to recognize the irrelevancy of that element.
In addition, modern shows are more filled with both self-referential elements and cultural references. He uses Seinfeld's Cosmo Kramer alias as an example, noting that it appears fleetingly in a handful of shows, but that jokes in some later shows may require an awareness of its role in prior shows. I have never watched much Seinfeld, but it is interesting that the developers end in a web site application I am working on used Cosmo Kramer and Vandelay Enterprises in dummy screens showing the design for the site.
Finally, in terms of social complexity, current shows require viewers to track more complicated social networks and interplay than ever before. To exemplify this, he maps the characters and relationships from Dallas Dallas Dallas
Even reality shows come in for some good words as Mr. Johnson notes that, again, the rules are unclear at the beginning and decisions and strategy are required by the participants and analyzed and second-guessed by viewers. In this, they are somewhat like videogames. Further, he notes that these shows require viewers to track multiple relationships and draw conclusions from minute clues in facial reactions or behavior. This is "social intelligence" and Mr. Johnson states:
"[T]he ability to analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large group is just as reliable a predictor of professional success as SAT scores or college grades."
It is participatory. In just the aspect that you are using here, blogs, many middle and high school students are both writing and reading more than they might have otherwise. Then, of course, there is instant messaging and e-mail. In addition, using the Internet requires a constant testing and adaptation of new tools as old software categories are enhanced and new ones created. As an example, I created my notes for this book in MindManager X5 Pro, am dictating this post into word with Dragon Naturally Speaking, and then will post it into a Typepad blog. Finally, he notes that the Internet, far from being the completely isolating technology many feared, has actually created new forms of community and enabled long-distance connectedness through e-mail and instant messaging.
Here, Mr. Johnson suggests that there is less evidence of increased intellectual challenge, a circumstance which he attributes to the restricted time frame of any individual movie. Unlike the multiple shows involved in a full season for a television series, any movie is limited to between two and three hours, usually. He does note that children's films have become much more complex. For example, there are over 20 unique personalities that are critical to Finding Nemo. He attributes this to the expectation by producers that these shows will be watched over and over by children, and that the complexity helps sell them by making the tolerable, even enjoyable, for adults.
Evidence of effects?
Mr. Johnson begins with a discussion of the "Flynn Effect" -- the three to eight points per decade increase in IQ stores, primarily for lower and middle levels of IQ, and most notable in non-verbal test of “g”, or general intelligence. He also goes back to television, where he quotes from an executive several decades ago who stated that the goal was "least objectionable programming" meaning that it caused the fewest viewers to turn off. Today, he suggests that the goal is "most repeatable programming", meaning shows that entice viewers to watch repeatedly, thereby driving DVD sales. Of course, for those who still see TV as the devil, he notes that TV watching is down 20% for 20-something males in the last five years.As another indication of the increasing intellectual challenge of popular culture, he points to the "metacommentaries” such as 50-thousand word walk-throughs of video games and web sites devoted to the analysis and discussion of TV series.
Finally, he points out that there has been an accelerating adaptation to new technologies. For example, it was 30 years between the advent of cinema and radio, then another 20 for television, five for VCRs and videogames, and in just the last 10 years we have seen e-mail, online chats, DVDs, instant messaging, and the Internet become integrated into modern life.
Two types of intellectual activity have not been affected by this trend. First, he suggests that the increase in the intellectual challenge of TV, video games, etc. has had little effect on our ability to concentrate on and absorb long, complicated, sequential works off persuasion (such as this book). Secondly, he also suggests that great novels are still the best way to intimately experience the interior world of another person. These, too, have not been promoted by popular culture.
Finally, he turns to what is more often the subject of commentary about popular culture: its morality or lack thereof. Think Grand Theft Auto. He does not deal much with sexual morality, but with regard to violence, he points to the dramatic drop in violent crime over the last 10 years. He further notes a 2004 Department of Justice/Department of Education report that violent crime dropped by half in schools from 1992 to 2002.