Steven Johnson begins Everything Bad Is Good For You with a claim: “This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing: that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years.”
This is a brave stance to take, as we’ve all been calling television a wasteland for years, shaking our heads at kids who stay glued to a screen playing games and watching shows. Johnson avoids covering well-trodden ground by refusing to discuss the morality of content. As he explains, “No one complains about the simplistic, militaristic plot of chess games.” If you can get past this purposeful exclusion (it seems like a lot of other reviewers can’t), this is a book of simple and brilliant concepts. Flash bulbs were going off in my head on each page.
A book that covers current culture dates itself quickly – Everything Bad is Good For You was originally published in 2005, and although the games and TV shows cited may not be relevant today (Joe Millionaire?) the ideas presented here seem timeless. Other media theorists, such as Marshall Macluhan (who Johnson cites), presented concepts 40 years ago which we still refer to today.
Everything Bad Is Good For You is at its best exploring the evolution and cognitive advancement of games, television, and reality television. Film and the internet are mentioned briefly, almost in passing. As a reader of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, Johnson’s stances on the internet made for a great opposing argument. Johnson does come across as theoretical, and I think this works well as many of his arguments are simple and make sense.
Johnson points out the development of multiple threading in prime time television – television’s increasing use of weaving many complicated threads throughout a show rather than having a single narrative plot. When he compares Dragnet (from the 1950’s) to the Sopranos (of 2000’s) the difference is striking. He talks about reality shows as tests of social skill, sort of live action video games. Drop a group of people in a controlled but unpredictable environment and see how they behave, and observe how they use their emotional intelligence to deal with those around them. This explains to me the appeal of reality television much more plausibly than other claims out there (we’re all watching to zone out, we’re all watching people be humiliated). Everything Bad Is Good For You also points out that as a nation our intelligence is rising – would it make sense if our entertainment didn’t advance with us?
I love to think serious thoughts and read big books, but I’m hooked on The Bachelor and Game of Thrones like everyone else. Arguments which state I’m watching this stuff because it is violent garbage, exploitative and simple-minded, don’t ring true to me. This book helped me feel a little less guilty about what I’ve always considered my “bad” habit of TV watching. I also downloaded Lumiosity for my phone, an app that claims to build your brain with simple mental games. They are fun, and who knows? Gaming could be good for me.