Cannonball Read IV: Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
I added Everything Bad is Good for You to my reading list shortly after finishing Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I was looking for a counterpoint to Postman’s arguments and the internet was fairly aggressive in promoting the dichotomy between the two books. In practice, that comparison doesn’t really hold up, in spite of Johnson’s insistence that it does. But where Postman has centuries of history and sociological evidence to back up his ideas, Jonson has a handful of examples from the top half of the 2000s, and a mountain of conjecture.
Steven Johnson’s core concept is the ‘Sleeper Curve,’ a theory which posits that there are significant cognitive benefits to our increasingly complex popular culture. Johnson never formally defines the Sleeper Curve anywhere in the book, but the general shape of the theory is fairly obvious. Everything Bad primarily wants to prove that we are getting smarter because our media is getting more complex and deeper. The book is split into three sections: first, contrasting historical television programing and computer gaming with the present entertainment markets; second, providing scientific evidence that we are getting smarter; and finally, a shorter section addressing the content versus raw complexity issue.
Where Everything Bad and Amusing Ourselves fundamentally differ is in their use of hard science. Postman never comes close to making an empirical claim, assuming the role of the social critic while using history and observed trends to defend his positions. Johnson attempts to use The Flynn effect of up-trending IQ scores to tentpole his observations. Unfortunately, the science doesn’t bear the weight of the argument. The Flynn effect is an observed global increase of IQ scores, apparently regardless of environment, socio-economic factors and genetics. But the effect isn’t very well understood, and Johnson doesn’t provide any sort of study or numerical data to back up his claim that television complexity explains rising IQ scores. His entire argument hinges on conjecture and an appropriated theory. By choosing to emphasize the role of science in his logic, Johnson has undermined his entire argument, rendering it both unscientific, and illogical.
That being said, Johnson does make some good points. His evidence of increasing complexity in the media is fairly unimpeachable, although there are some problems with his understanding of the evolution of video games. He incorrectly assumes that games like Civilization and SimCity evolved from the same place as arcade games like PacMan, when the development of arcade cabinets was separate and parallel to the evolution of home computing systems. He also makes some somewhat bizarre claims of length equaling complexity. For example, an optimized game of PacMan could be represented on two or three pages of text, while the guide for a modern game like Grand Theft Auto takes up hundreds of pages. While some of this volume is clearly due to increased complexity, there is also the matter that PacMan was designed to be played over the course of a few minutes, while most modern games try to have a minimum play time between twelve and fifteen hours. This shift in play time says more about our ability to focus than it does about our ability to process information.
It is unclear to me if Johnson was aiming high and missed because he was writing a book for popular consumption, or if he just never bothered to fully research his ideas. Certainly there is a lack of good science looking into the impact of multimedia on our collective neurology. In an afterward published a year after the book, Johnson defends his work by saying it was intended to be a jumping-off point for individuals interested in pursuing a line of inquiry that had been more or less dismissed by a culture eager to blame its problems on television violence and sex. But while this theory certainly warrants more scholarly interest, Everything Bad has clearly failed to meet its burden of proof.
It may be a symptom of the political season and our media’s ability to strip the context from all but the most banal statements, but I’m becoming a firm believer in the notion of a thought half-finished being more dangerous than no thought at all. Without the facts and data to back up his theories, Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You is little better than a stump speech: all promise, no substance.
(Header image by Michael Vincent Manalo. Learn how to make one just like it.)
This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
For more of Fofo’s reviews, check out his blog, Deconstructive Criticism.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)
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