[Paleopsych] Salon: Don't kill your television

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Tue May 3 22:15:24 UTC 2005

Don't kill your television

Far from making us stupid, violent and lazy, TV and video games are as
good for us as spinach, says an engaging new book by Steven Johnson.

By Farhad Manjoo

Pop culture, like fast food, gets a bad rap. It's
perfectly understandable: Because we consume so much of the stuff -- we
watch so much TV, pack away so many fries -- and because the consumption
is so intimate, it's natural to look to our indulgence as the cause of
all that ails us. Let's face it, we Americans are fat and lazy and
simple-minded; we yell a lot and we've got short attention spans and
we're violent and promiscuous and godless; and when we're not putting
horndogs into office we're electing dumb guys who start too many wars
and can't balance the budget and ... you know what I mean? You are what
you eat. The output follows from the input. When you look around and all
you see is Ronald McDonald and Ryan Seacrest, it seems natural to
conclude that junk food and junk culture are responsible for a large
chunk of the mess we're in.

The other day, though, in an unbelievably delicious turn of events, the
government reported that people who are overweight face a lower risk of
death than folks who are thin. While the news didn't exactly exonerate
junk food, it was a fitting prelude to the publication of Steven
Johnson's new polemic "Everything Bad Is Good for You," which argues
that what we think of as junk food for the mind -- video games, TV
shows, movies and much of what one finds online -- is not actually junk
at all. In this intriguing volume, Johnson marshals the findings of
brain scientists and psychologists to examine the culture in which we
swim, and he shows that contrary to what many of us assume, mass media
is becoming more sophisticated all the time. The media, he says,
shouldn't be fingered as the source of all our problems. Ryan Seacrest
is no villain. Instead, TV, DVDs, video games and computers are making
us smarter every day.

"For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture
follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator
standards," Johnson writes. "But in fact, the exact opposite is
happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not
less." Johnson labels the trend "the Sleeper Curve," after the 1973
Woody Allen film that jokes that in the future, more advanced societies
will come to understand the nutritional benefits of deep fat, cream pies
and hot fudge. Indeed, at first, Johnson's argument does sound as
shocking as if your doctor had advised you to eat more donuts and, for
God's sake, to try and stay away from spinach. But Johnson is a forceful
writer, and he makes a good case; his book is an elegant work of
argumentation, the kind in which the author anticipates your silent
challenges to his ideas and hospitably tucks you in, quickly bringing
you around to his side.

In making his case for pop culture, Johnson, who was a co-founder of the
pioneering (and now-defunct) Web journal Feed, draws on research from
his last book, "Mind Wide Open," which probed the mysteries of how our
brains function. Johnson's primary method of analyzing media involves a
concept he calls "cognitive labor." Instead of judging the value of a
certain book, video game or movie by looking at its content -- at the
snappy dialogue, or the cool graphics, or the objectives of the game --
Johnson says that we should instead examine "the kind of thinking you
have to do to make sense of a cultural experience." Probed this way, the
virtues of today's video games and TV shows become readily apparent, and
the fact that people aren't reading long-form literature as much as they
used to looks less than dire. "By almost all standards we use to measure
reading's cognitive benefits -- attention, memory, following threads,
and so on -- the non-literary popular culture has been steadily growing
more challenging over the past thirty years," Johnson says. Moreover,
non-literary media like video games, TV and the movies are also "honing
different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised
by reading books."

Johnson adds that he's not offering a mere hypothesis for how video
games and TV shows may affect our brains -- there's proof, he says, that
society is getting smarter due to the media it consumes. In most
developed countries, including the United States, IQs have been rising
over the past half-century, a statistic that of course stands in stark
contrast to the caricature of modern American idiocy. Johnson attributes
intelligence gains to the increasing sophistication of our media, and
writes that, in particular, mass media is helping us -- especially
children -- learn how to deal with complex technical systems. Kids
today, he points out, often master electronic devices in ways that their
parents can't comprehend. They do this because their brains have been
trained to understand complexity through video games and through TV;
mass media, he says, prepares children for the increased difficulty that
tomorrow's world will surely offer, and it does so in a way that reading
a book simply cannot do.

Still, at times Johnson protests too much, setting up what look like
straw men defenders of old media so that he can expound on the greatness
of the new. It's true that many oldsters continue to say a lot of silly
things about the current media environment. Johnson quotes Steve Allen,
George Will, the "Dr. Spock" child-care books and the Parents Television
Council, all of whom think of modern media in the way former FCC
chairman Newton Minow famously described the television landscape of the
early 1960s -- as a "vast wasteland." (For good measure, Johnson could
also have taken a stab at opportunistic politicians like Jennifer
Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan, who's trying to pass a
state ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, or misguided
liberals like Kalle Lasn, who wants vigilantes to shut off your TV.)

Yet, I suspect that most of Johnson's audience probably already gets it.
I was tickled by much of what Johnson illustrates about how video games
and TV affect your brain, and some of it surprised me, but I wasn't
really skeptical in the first place. Most people my age -- kids who grew
up at the altar of Nintendo and "Seinfeld" -- probably feel the same
way. And this is to Johnson's credit: To young people, his take on media
feels intuitively right. It's clear what he means when he says TV makes
you think, and that video games require your brain. Indeed, if you've
ever played a video game, Johnson pretty much has you at hello.

That reading books is good for children is the most treasured notion in
society's cabinet of received child-rearing wisdom, Johnson notes. Yet
it's a pretty well established fact that kids today don't read as much
as kids of yesterday -- at least, they're not reading books. (Few
studies, Johnson points out, have taken note of the explosion of reading
prompted by electronic media like the Web.) What are these children
doing? They're playing video games. And other than praising games for
building a kid's "hand-eye coordination," video games are, say child
experts like Dr. Spock, a "colossal waste of time," leading us down the
path to hell.

What's best about Johnson's section arguing that video games are just as
good for you as books are is his tone: He's breezy and funny, and for a
while you forget that he's proposing the kind of idea that in earlier
times may have ended with a sip of hemlock. As I say, I think most
people will be with him from the start: Video games are better than we
think? Sure, I'll buy that. But one still feels itchy under the collar
when he starts comparing something as sacred as the bound book to the
sacrilege that is "Grand Theft Auto." And when, in a short, satirical
passage, he points out all the shortcomings of books in the same unfair
way most people describe the shortcomings of video games, I'm sure he
drives more than a few readers to go out in search of some hemlock. A
sample: "Perhaps the most dangerous property of ... books is that they
follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any
fashion -- you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you ...
This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them
feel as if they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is
not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one."

Of course, Johnson makes clear, he loves books (they provide, for
starters, his livelihood). Still, his criticism of books' lack of
interactivity -- even if it's offered as a purposefully specious point
-- is valid. Books may promote a wide range of mental exercises, and a
certain book may send your mind skittering in a dozen euphoric
directions, but there are things that a book simply will not, cannot,
do. Books don't let you explore beyond the narrative. Their scenery is
set, and what's there is all that's there. You may have liked to have
visited some of Gatsby's neighbors, but you can't. Books also don't ask
you to make decisions, and in a larger sense don't require you to
participate. You sit back and watch a book unfold before you. The book's
possibilities are limited; what will happen is what's written on the
next page. Read it a thousand times, still Rabbit always runs.

So this should be plain: Because they're interactive, video games
promote certain mental functions that books do not. Specifically, video
games exercise your brain's capacity to understand complex situations.
That's because in most video games, the rules, and sometimes the
objectives, aren't explicit. You fall into the sleazy urban landscape of
"Grand Theft Auto" with no real idea of what you're supposed to do.
Indeed, Johnson points out, much of the action in playing any video game
is finding out how to play the game -- determining how your character
moves, seeing which weapons do what, testing the physics of the place.
If you fall from a building, does your character get hurt? What happens
if you open this door? What kind of strategy can you plan to beat the
monster on Level 3? The kind of probing gamers employ to determine
what's going on in such simulated worlds, Johnson says, is very similar
to the kind of probing scientists use to understand the natural world.
Kids playing video games, in other words, are "learning the basic
procedure of the scientific method."

Because TV is more fun, Johnson's section on television is more engaging
than his examination of video games, but its revelations also feel a bit
more obvious. His main point -- you can see an extended version of it in
this New York Times Magazine excerpt -- is that most modern TV shows
exercise your brain in ways that old TV shows never dared. Today's
shows, whether dramas or comedies, are multithreaded -- several subplots
occur at the same time, and in the best shows (like "The Sopranos" or
"The West Wing") the subplots often run into each other (there is one
popular exception: "Law & Order."). Modern shows -- including, of
course, reality shows -- also feature many more characters; only a
handful of regulars graced "Dallas" every week, but there are dozens of
people in "24."

Today's TV shows are also far more willing to keep the viewer in the
dark about what's going on in a certain scene, or to include allusions
to other art forms, or previous years' episodes. Medical jargon has been
written into just about every scene on "ER" specifically to keep you on
your toes about what's happening. "Nearly every extended sequence in
'Seinfeld' or 'The Simpsons' ... will contain a joke that only makes
sense if the viewer fills in supplementary information -- information
that is deliberately withheld from the viewer," Johnson writes. "If
you've never seen the 'Mulva' episode, or the name 'Art Vandelay' means
nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them occurring
years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated."
What all this amounts to, Johnson says, is work for your brain. Watching
TV is not a passive exercise. When you're watching one of today's
popular shows, even something as nominally silly as "Desperate
Housewives," you're exercising your brain -- you're learning how to make
sense of a complex narrative, you're learning how to navigate social
networks, you're learning (through reality TV) about the intricacies of
social intelligence, and a great deal more.

What I wonder, though, is, Doesn't everyone know that today's TV is
better than yesterday's TV? It's here that I think Johnson's too focused
on straw men. Like most Americans, I've spent enough time watching
television to have earned several advanced degrees in the subject. Yes,
TV today is clogged with more sex and violence than TV of yesterday, but
for all that, is there anyone in America who doesn't believe that on
average, what we've seen on TV in the last decade has been more
intricate, more complex and just plain smarter than the shows of the
1980s or the 1970s? Of course, there are exceptions; everyone can think
of a great show from the 1970s that beats a middling show of today.
("The Jeffersons" kicks "According to Jim's" ass.) But I'm talking about
apples-to-apples comparisons: Is there anyone who prefers "Hill Street
Blues," which as Johnson points out was one of the best dramas of the
1980s, to "The West Wing" or "ER" or "The Sopranos"? I imagine only the
very nostalgic would say they do.

In the same way, I don't know how anyone couldn't see that "Seinfeld" is
smarter than "Cheers," or that "Survivor" is more arresting than "Family
Feud," or that "American Idol" clobbers "Star Search." When I say that
the new shows are better, I mean in the same ways that Johnson argues --
not based on content, but on brain work. Today's shows tease your brain
in ways that the old shows do not, and you are aware of the difference.
We may not have plotted out the shows' mechanism as well as Johnson has
-- we can't say precisely why "ER" is completely different from "St.
Elsewhere" -- but to me, at least, the difference is clear enough that
Johnson's Sleeper Curve is unsurprising.

As I see it, then, the most interesting question about Johnson's theory
is not whether it's accurate. It's why it's happening -- why is media
getting smarter, and why are we flocking to media that actually makes us
smarter? Johnson examines the question at some length, and he fingers
two usual suspects: technology (the VCR, TiVo, DVDs, ever more powerful
game systems) and economics (the increasing importance of the
syndication market). But I like the third part of his answer best -- our
media's getting smarter, he says, because the brain craves intelligent

The dynamic is that of a feedback loop: Today's media is smarter because
yesterday's media made us smart to begin with. "Dragnet" prepares you
for "Starsky and Hutch," which prepares you for "Hill Street Blues,"
which begets "ER," "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos." If we'd seen "The
West Wing" in the 1980s, we wouldn't have known what to do with it.
Indeed, many people didn't know what to do with "Hill Street Blues" when
it debuted, in the same way that all path-breaking media confound
viewers at first. Few people understood the early years of "Seinfeld,"
and, today, only a small crew can appreciate the genius of "Arrested

The amazing thing -- and the most hopeful thing in Johnson's book, and
about culture in general -- is that the mind challenges itself to
understand what's just out of its reach. After three years of watching
"Seinfeld" the nation more or less collectively began to understand the
thing. In no time, then, the show lodged itself into the cultural
landscape. No longer, after that, could you remark on someone's
sexuality without adding, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

And, whatever else you may have heard, this tells us, once and for all,
that we are not stupid.

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer.

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