book review

Everything Bad is Good for You

Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson tries to counter the common sentiment that popular culture is making us, and especially our children, dumber. He argues to the contrary. Popular culture is actually making us smarter.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first Johnson discusses four forms of popular culture in greater (games, television) and lesser detail (the internet, cinema). With a few convincing analyses he shows that the popular cultural products have grown in complexity and inspire us to greater cognitive effort than before. Instead of depicting the fan of popular culture as a mindless and a-social zombie, Johnson paints a clear picture of all the advanced thinking that is needed these days to follow the plots and structures of popular media. It is not the content of these products that counts, rather the way we need to think about them trains our brains and enhances the vital skills required to deal with the information age. The ultimate gauge of the quality of a popular cultural product is not what it deals with, but how actively it engages us.

The second part discusses the context of the ever increasing complexity of popular media. The economic arguments Johnson puts forward are very interesting. These days the most money is made from syndication, selling DVDs to the audience and this requires a content that can be consumed repeatedly. Complex plots that reveal new details over repeated viewings are crucial in this regard. Also, cultural products are best promoted through the critical early adapters whose opinion can contribute to the all important word of mouth advertisement. Those critical viewers are best catered for when their cultural decoding skills are pleasantly challenged.

But is popular culture making us really smarter? Johnson thinks so, and tries to prove his argument by pointing to the Flynn-effect that describes how the result IQ tests progressively improve over the successive generations. However, in my opinion, he fails to convince that this trend is to be attributed to popular culture. Nowhere in the book is there a graph relating the IQ trends and complexity of popular culture. Although he does hint at such relations at various points. It might as well be that popular culture is growing more complex because we are getting smarter, and not the other way around.

All in all, Everything Bad is a good and accessible read. Johnson makes a strong case against the myth that popular culture is dumbing us down. That, in itself, is an important victory. The claim that popular culture is making us really smarter, is provoking but requires further investigation before it is truly convincing.