Book Discussion: Everything Bad is Good for You (Steven Johnson)
Video games, television, and Internet: These three things make up the major facets of popular culture. With a little thinking, it’s quite easy to buy into the idea that these three things are exactly the things that are breaking our culture down at the seams. But are they? Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You seems to think otherwise. In fact, Johnson proposes that not only are these things not hurtful, they are, in fact, helpful to our own intelligence as a culture.
In his book, an “old-fashioned work of persuasion” (Johnson, before page 1), Johnson brings to light many aspects of our growth from popular culture on an intellectual level over the course of the past thirty years. However, while it is clear through Johnson’s book that we are, indeed, learning things from popular culture, He largely hides the ‘what’ that we’re learning. Content is put on the shelf, seemingly unimportant to the idea of learning. If the case is that it makes no difference what we’re learning, as long as we are learning, Johnson is spot on. But is it that way? Or, perhaps Johnson’s book doesn’t give the full picture.
One aspect of popular culture that Johnson spends a great deal of time analyzing is the videogame boom that began between 1984 and 1986. The boom hasn’t ended, and it could, perhaps, even, be argued to be much stronger now than it was then. But videogames can’t be that great for us, can they? They don’t teach us anything anything. The most we could probably learn from them is hand-eye coordination, or perhaps how to be more violent, Right? If Johnson has anything to say about it; wrong.
Johnson begins his book by talking about Videogames in contrast to Books. Reading has been widely accepted as a healthy activity, and playing videogames has widely been accepted as quite the opposite. However, Johnson defines the criteria upon which reading has been brought into the spotlight. “Attention, Memory, Following Threads” (Johnson, 23), and other abilities shine so brightly in the avid reader. However, today’s gamers require these, and a plethora of other skills to master.
In an article written for The Boston Globe, Peter Bebergal writes: “To put it simply, Dungeons and Dragons, [A board game upon which many videogames of today base their storylines], reinvented the use of the imagination as a kid’s best toy…. Looking around my toddler’s room full of trucks, trains, and Transformers, I want to cry out, “I created worlds with nothing more than a twenty-sided die!”” (Peter Bebergal) Surely, videogames provide a bit more than a twenty-sided die, but the gamer is still required to use their cognitive skills and imagination to generate that which cannot so simply be conveyed on the screen.
Johnson brings up an interesting point about videogames on page 25; “The dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun”. Almost everyone has heard of Tetris, which was an instant success. However, since the days of Tetris, there have been quantum leaps in the amount of cognition required in completing even a single level of gameplay. In Tetris, the player is required to actively think about the arrangement of the board at the bottom, and the shape of the piece falling, and try to come up with the best possible scenario allowing that falling piece to mesh with the pieces which are on the board, so as to remove them. Levels following are more of the same. What’s more, all of these rules are stated from the very beginning – no guesswork whatsoever.
That was pre-1985. Since then, games have gotten significantly more complex. In 1996, a company called Segasoft released a game called Obsidian. Truly, the term ‘work of art’ would fit it better. This game was the first of its kind to come packaged with a walkthrough. If Tetris was the videogame industry’s epitome of simplicity, Obsidian is a different animal altogether. The guidebook begins with Carl Jung’s explanation of various dreams and other phenomena.
This game spans five Compact discs, and requires, for the genius, a minimum of five hours to complete. For the rest of us, it may take five hours to complete the second disc alone. The first disc is merely an introduction. Unlike Tetris, not all of the rules are explained to you – in fact, very few are explained. In the second disc, all they tell you is that you need to see the chief to advance to the next realm (thereby moving to the next disc). What they don’t tell you follows:
To get to the chief, you need to fix a bridge. To fix the bridge, you need to place a call with a tri-dimensional telephone by knowing that the three digits in the number correspond to the x, y, and z axes on the coordinate plane; giving the coordinates of the chief. To get the number, you must look in the file called ‘limitation’. To know that the number is there, you need to have unscrewed the light bulb to get the codes ‘orient’ and ‘militia’, then, recognizing that the goal is to create an anagram of the longest possible word that can be made from those two words, move toward "the bureau" to locate the file. To be able to infer this, you must have the ‘standard damage’ file stamped by pre-approvals. (here, there are at least twenty steps which it would be prudent not to delve further into). To get the file, you need to know that you should take the words ‘standard’ and ‘damage’ and create an anagram of the longest possible word, which happens to be ‘tradesman’ and the name of the ‘standard damage’ file. (There are at least twenty steps which would take you to the point where the game asks you for that particular file). Certainly, this demonstrates the requirement of complexity in modern gaming.
How, then, can it be said that videogames are making us dumber when, games like this are, inevitably, forcing us to use a high percentage of our faculties all at once, just to move along to the next level. The guidebook is almost two-hundred pages long for a reason. This game is not alone, there is a cornucopia of gaming pleasure waiting for the next average individual just waiting to challenge the majority of their mental capabilities.
Surely, videogames have changed the way our generation thinks by not being the passive media that previous generations thought they were. However, while we’re on the subject of ‘passive media’, not much could be more passive than Television. Unless, that is, of course, Johnson has a few words on the subject.
Johnson compares the same aspect of complexity with television as with videogames. Television shows have been achieving an exceeding amount of complexity with each series that would air. Johnson uses Dragnet or Starsky and Hutch as examples of single-plot television shows. Alias, Lost, and The Sopranos are looked at as more complex shows, with multiple plot-lines to follow. Surely, television has become exceedingly complex.
However, that said, is that really ‘progress’? Granted, by watching this television, we are not learning the skills we need to imagine entire worlds based solely on written text, but we are forced to keep an entire story straight within our minds so the dialogue makes sense. Take any popular soap opera for example. In As the World Turns, to understand the plot, one is forced to keep track of all of the characters, how they relate to each other, which characters are trying to kill other characters and why. This may work out very easily with a cast of 7, but with a cast of fifty plus, it’s no small task.
However, while the ability of being able to keep multiple plot-lines in our mind at one time, comparing, and making hypotheses about what we know is a very important skill, content, in this situation, should not be ignored. Certainly, television has influence. “In 1988, Jay Winsten, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health…conceived a plan to use television to introduce…the designated driver to north America.”(Rosenzwieg) Before this, there was no widely accepted concept as a ‘designated driver’. However, Winsten pushed forward, and soon afterward, characters in all sorts of television shows started being designated drivers. “In 1991, 52% of adults younger than 30 had served as designated drivers, suggesting that the campaign was having greatest success with its target audience” (Rosenzwieg).
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If the case is that Americans can be greatly influenced simply by adding a new idea into scripts across different television shows, who’s to say we’re not learning things we don’t want to be learning? If good ideas can be conveyed on television and actualized in society, what’s stopping bad ideas from doing the same thing? Johnson, here, would say that learning is learning nonetheless. However, if one is learning things harmful to society, I wouldn’t necessarily call that ‘progress’.
Perhaps the newest form of media to enter the scene is the Internet. The internet is home to many wonderful things from scholarly websites, newspaper articles, Information databases, online shopping, online banking, e-books, music downloads, software downloads, and a multitude of other capabilities. Surely, the internet could not be making us smarter in any way. Johnson, once again, has different ideas.
More importantly than the resources which are complete on the internet alone, is the value it offers to complement existing media. The video gamer has a cornucopia of different websites, which aid them on their quest to victory via walkthroughs and cheat-codes. Many television shows have websites devoted to that show with character bios, behind-the-scenes footage, and other novel features not previously possible. However, more spectacular than these would be none other than the ‘blog’.
Short for ‘Web Log’, the blog is almost like a journal of sorts, where any internet wielding individual can express his or her opinion for the world to see. “According to a 2004 study,…more than 8 million Americans report that they have a weblog or online diary” (Johnson 119). DIY (Do it yourself) network has sponsored a television show called Blog Cabin, a portmanteau of sorts. Entrants submitted blog entries as to what projects the house should undergo, and the best blogs were chosen to be the basis of the television program. Newly formed bands have used blogs as their launching pad to stardom – or at least minor fame. This new ability for the ‘every man’ to have their own soap box is not only young, it’s taken off like second nature. This also teaches us to be writers. Nobody enjoys reading blogs with bad grammar, and that, if nothing else, is an incentive to spruce up the vocabulary.
Geert Lovink, alternatively, in an interview with Herbert I. Schiller, discusses what he calls Internet Inequality. In essence, the idea is that while the movies, television shows, videogames and the music industry are all, more or less, content controlled. The internet, however, is about as free from censorship as you can get. Of course, there are certainly illegal things that are censored for good reason; but there is still an awful lot of freedom involved. Not everyone can make a movie, and see it on HBO; not everyone can write a movie review and see it on the back cover of the movie. Nonetheless, with the internet and blogs, the ability to be heard is no longer relinquished solely to the elite.
With all of this in mind, videogames, television, and internet all play a vital role in the intellectual health of our society. In every case there is an instance of someone bashing new technology, and some cases are valid. But it seems from this study that, on the whole, our society is being demanded to be things it never was before. We are demanded to think, to hypothesize, to make mistakes, and correct them; all within the safety of our mind. Whether it’s with a controller in our hand, in front of the television, or in front of our computer monitor, our cognitive strengths are constantly being tested. More importantly, it is our own free will allowing us to take part in activities that are personally beneficial.
Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson
To close, while Johnson hits the bull’s-eye with portions of his book, surely, content is much more important than he lets on. As writers of the Obsidian guidebook, Geert Lovink, Peter Buse, Peter Bebergal, and Jane Rosenzweig have all, perhaps unknowingly, proven; ignoring content can be a terrible thing. Our minds are being stretched in ways we, years ago, did not know were possible. The technology boom proves necessary once again. Johnson’s book complements these authors in the quest for the truth. And although not everything that’s bad is good for you; the myth about popular culture being bad for you is certainly not holding water this time.
Bebergal, Peter. "How 'Dungeons' Changed the World." The Boston Globe 15 Nov. 2004. 15 Nov. 2007
Buse, Peter. "Nintendo and Telos: Will You Ever Reach the End?" Cultural Critique 34 (1996): 163-184. JSTOR. Paley Library, Levittown. 15 Nov. 2007
Irish, Dan, and Howard Cushnir. The Official Obsidian Strategies & Secrets. Townsend, San Francisco: Rocket Science Games Inc., 1997.
Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.
Lovink, Geert. "TP: Information Inequality." Telepolis. 15 Nov. 2007
Maasic, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. Signs of Life in the USA. 5th ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006.
Rosenzwieg, Jane. "Can TV Improve Us? - the American Prospect." The American Prospect. 30 Nov. 2002. 15 Nov. 2007