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Everything Bad is Good for You: The complexity of today's pop culture

Updated on March 5, 2013

I saw Steven Johnson give a speech at the American Library Association meeting in Seattle back in January, and I was so captivated by what he had to say that I had to check out some of the books he had written. This is my first review of one of Johnson's books, but don't expect it to be the last, as Johnson is a very interesting and compelling writer, and I look forward to what he will produce next.

"Everything Bad is Good for You" is an analysis of the pop culture of the past few decades, and a full-throated attack on the belief that TV and video games are mindless entertainments with no redeeming quality. Indeed, Johnson believes that the increasing complexity of pop culture (focusing mostly on television and video games) actually helps develop skills, such as the ability to track multiple narratives, problem-solving, the ability to fill in blanks, and emotional intelligence. While not discounting the value of more traditional forms of media (books, for example), which he admits develop other skills that these newer forms of media do not, Johnson is able to demonstrate, using neurological and sociological studies, that TV and video games are not the worthless time wastes that our parents told us they were.

A secondary point, and one I actually found even more interesting than Johnson's main thesis, is Johnson pointing out that producers of TV and video games are creating content that is intentionally complex in such a way as to reward repeated viewing or playthroughs. Compared to the television of the Seventies and earlier, the shows of the Nineties and 2000s have multiple interconnecting storylines, references to other works of media, complicated injokes and references, and many more elements that engage the mind of the person watching. It seems that the desire for complex narratives creates complicated works of pop culture, which develop minds who desire even more complex narratives.

While I didn't agree with all of the arguments Johnson puts forward, I definitely found myself convinced by his general thrust. I would be curious to see what Johnson would make of the world of media today, with shows even more fiendishly complex and resources like TV Tropes online to promote in-depth analysis of media today. We can always hope for a sequel!

All in all, a fascinating and interesting book. Definitely check it out if you come across it.


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