Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
By Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2005, $23.95; 238 pages.
As reviewed by Nathan Glazer
Everything Bad Is Good for You. Is this title a joke? The subtitle suggests it could be. And the book’s epigraph is from the movie Sleeper, in which a scientist of the world of the future ponders Woody Allen on reawakening after a hundred years of sleep and requesting “wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk.” “You mean,” says the bemused scientist, “there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or … hot fudge?”
Steven Johnson is a very able science journalist. He has already written a solid book on the brain (Mind Wide Open), conveying the latest wisdom in the field of neuroscience. He knows what he would be up against in making a case that video games and current TV sitcoms, dramas, and reality shows have some redeeming value in enhancing the mind.
Nonetheless, Johnson does claim in Everything Bad Is Good for You that those unlikely contributions to our culture, the video game and the commercial TV program, are doing something good for our minds. Reaching out to those committed to the older culture, the book, he writes, “is an old-fashioned work of persuasion, that ultimately aims to convince of one thing: that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the last thirty years.” Note the words “old-fashioned” and “persuasion.” He acknowledges that he could never make his argument in the form of a video game or TV show: it takes a book to make the case.
Appealing to those who are horrified by the new culture, he offers as an analogy Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or, worse, the world of E. M. Forster (from “The Machine Stops,” published in 1909): “Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet … this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An arm-chair is at the centre, by its side a reading-desk. And in the arm-chair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh.” Very much like the rooms inhabited by players of an endless video game, no? Well, no, argues Johnson.
What Kind of Intelligence?
Video games, Johnson tells us, are complicated and becoming ever more complicated. They stretch areas of the mind that a book might not engage. Johnson uses the terms “probing” and “telescoping” to describe the mental activities exercised in playing games. It seems there is much in the games that is hidden by design and that has to be divined if the game is to proceed. (I follow Johnson’s account; I have never seen a video game.) The games set tasks that require solving earlier tasks, which require solving still earlier tasks, almost ad infinitum. This is “telescoping.” So:
“To locate the items, you need the pearl of Din from the islanders.… To get this, you need to help them solve their problems. To do this, you need to cheer up the Prince. To do this, you need to get a letter from the girl.… ”
The sequence “for this one objective” from the video game “Zelda” goes on for almost two pages before Johnson writes, “I’ll spare you the entire sequence.”
If you find this to be nonsense and are mystified at how grown, or even half-grown, human beings can devote hour after hour to this (there are guide books to these games—Johnson refers to one that runs to 53,000 words—and also Internet sites for discussion and analysis), read on. Johnson is clever at arguing on behalf of the kind of mental exercise these games involve. According to the author, this string of tasks for persons about whom we know nothing and care little is like the kind of question that might be on an intelligence test. For example, you are presented with the problem of “Simon,” who has a hundred tags, numbered 1 to 100, and is drawing them out at random. You are asked, What is the likelihood he will draw number 21 on his 100th try? You know nothing of Simon, why he is confronted with his hundred tags, or what his state of mind is. But that’s not the point. It’s not literature; it is a test.
I find it far-fetched to consider the probability example as a parallel to the video game’s tasks. There is, after all, a correct answer in the probability question, in a sense different from the correct solution to a task in a video game. But Johnson ingeniously recasts the video’s string of tasks directly into a multiple-choice question:
“You need to cross a gorge to reach a valuable destination. At one end of the gorge a large rock stands in front of the river, blocking the flow of water …,” and so on, to the multiple choices with which you are confronted.
But this reworking of a series of tasks in a video game is still far from an intelligence-test challenge. There is an arbitrariness in the problem set, the conditions described, and the solution the game is designed to have the player choose. I don’t find this in questions testing the understanding of grammar or arithmetic.
Johnson thinks that both the probability questions and the video game’s tasks are “good for the mind on some fundamental level: they teach abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations.… ”
I remain skeptical. He has made his case that the games are far more complicated than they were 10 or 20 years ago; but what this complexity is good for, except longer games, remains unclear to me.
The Vast Playland
Johnson’s case for TV is stronger. He demonstrates directly, using charts of interactions among characters, that some of the most popular TV dramas and sitcoms have become more complicated and demanding: multiple stories are being told at the same time, and viewers are required to keep in mind more complex and far-reaching networks of personal relations. He even makes a case for reality shows like “The Apprentice,” which are discussed on Internet sites, and on which difficult ethical issues might be debated.
In the second half of the book Johnson makes his case that all this is “good for you” by going to developments in the larger society that we would not ordinarily connect with the new media. Thus average IQ scores are increasing even as video games become ever more popular. Johnson refers to the research of James Flynn and others on this increase, though I do not believe any of the researchers ascribe this increase to video games or the increasing complexity of some products of the mass media. If we are reading less (Johnson concedes this), why do IQ tests show that we are getting smarter? We may not be getting higher scores when the tests use traditional cultural content (one can’t learn that from the video games and the TV shows), but we are apparently getting better at other kinds of tests, such as Raven Matrices, which test for logic, pattern recognition, and task completion.
Johnson takes no stand on the argument that the increasing use of violence and sex in the games and on TV is having deleterious effects on society, but he does note the drop in murder and crime generally that has occurred in tandem with the rise of the video game (and he might also have pointed to the drop in teenage pregnancies). The mind, Johnson argues from his studies of neuroscience, demands challenges, and the new media provide them. “We are not innate slackers,” he writes, “drawn inexorably to the least offensive and least complicated entertainment available. All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity.”
What to make of this? Johnson has a case when he talks about improvement in abilities independent of content, and in this sense he reminds me of those who say that education and schooling should be a matter of how to think rather than what one thinks about. Yet I cannot help but conclude that thinking about stealing cars (for example, the very popular “Grand Theft Auto”) or finding imaginary hidden jewels is less helpful as education than thinking about the problems of characters in well-formed novels, or issues in current politics, or real history. It is a reprise of the debate between E. D. Hirsch’s “cultural literacy”—induction into our culture, our issues, our debates—and the so-called skills that can be addressed to anything, or nothing. In this I stand with those who want our culture to be part of our education. And even if video games are now “part of our culture,” some parts of our culture are more worthy than others.
Nathan Glazer is professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard University.