everything bad is . . . 10.26.2005, 4:18 PM
posted by dan visel
first up: I appreciate you coming over to defend yourself. The blogosphere is far too often self-reinforcing - the left (for example) reads left-leaning blogs and the right reads right-leaning blogs & there's not a lot of dialogue between people on opposite sides, to everyone's loss.
Here's something that's been nagging me for the past week or so: your book seems to effectively be conservative. Bear with me for a bit: I'm not saying that it's Bill O'Reilly-style invective. I do think, however, that it effectively reinforces the status quo. Would I be wrong in taking away as the message of the book the chain of logic that:
- Our pop culture's making us smarter.
- Therefore it must be good.
- Therefore we don't need to change what we're doing.
I'll wager that you wouldn't sign off on (3) & would argue that your book isn't in the business of prescribing further action. I'm not accusing you of having malicious intentions, and we can't entirely blame a writer for the distortions we bring to their work as readers (hey Nietzsche!). But I think (3)'s implicitly in the book: this is certainly the message most reviewers, at least, seem to be taking away from the book. Certainly you offer caveats (if the kids are watching television, there's good television & there's bad television), but I think this is ultimately a Panglossian view of the world: everything is getting better and better, we just need to stand back and let pop culture work upon us. Granted, the title may be a joke, but can you really expect us, the attention-deficit-addled masses, to realize that?
Even to get to (2) in that chain of reasoning, you need to buy into (1), which I don't know that I do. Even before you can prove that rising intelligence is linked to the increased complexity of popular culture – which I'll agree is interesting & does invite scrunity – you need to make the argument that intelligence is something that can be measured in a meaningful way. Entirely coincidentally – really – I happened to re-read Stephen Jay Gould's Mismeasure of Man before starting in on EBIGFY; not, as I'm sure you know, a happy combination, but I think a relevant one. Not to reopen the internecine warfare of the Harvard evolutionary biology department in the 1990s, but I think the argument that Gould wrings out of the morass of intelligence/IQ studies still holds: if you know who your "smart" kids are, you can define "smartness" in their favor. There remain severe misgivings about the concept of g, which you skirt: I'm not an expert on the current state of thought on IQ, so I'll skirt this too. But I do think it's worth noting that while you're not coming to Murray & Herrnstein's racist conclusions, you're still making use of the same data & methodology they used for The Bell Curve, the same data & methodology that Gould persuasively argued was fundamentally flawed. Science, the history of intelligence testing sadly proves, doesn't exist outside of a political and economic context.
But even if smartness can be measured as an abstract quantity and if we are "smarter" than those of times past, to what end? This is the phrase I found myself writing over and over in the margin of your book. Is there a concrete result in this world of our being better at standardized tests? Sure, it's interesting that we seem to be smarter, but what does that mean for us? Maybe the weakest part of your book argues that we're now able to do a better job of picking political leaders. Are you living in the same country I'm living in? and watching the same elections? If we get any smarter, we'll all be done for.
I'll grant that you didn't have political intentions in writing this, but the ramifications are there, and need to be explored if we're going to seriously engage with your ideas. Technology – the application of science to the world in which we live – can't exist in an economic and political vacuum.
Steven Johnson on October 27, 2005 10:05 AM:
But I do think it's worth noting that while you're not coming to Murray & Herrnstein's racist conclusions, you're still making use of the same data & methodology they used for The Bell Curve, the same data & methodology that Gould persuasively argued was fundamentally flawed.
Gould argued that the Bell Curve hypothesis was fundamentally flawed for two reasons: 1) because there was plenty of reason to suspect that culture influenced IQ as much as genes did, and 2) because IQ was only a limited snapshot of intelligence, not the whole story. Everything Bad is a complete celebration of objection #1, obviously (pop culture driving the IQ increase, instead of breeding, as the Bell Curve folks would have it); and I say in the book and have said here that I don't think IQ is the anywhere near the whole story where intelligence is concerned. So I see the book as much more aligned with Gould's argument than Murray and Herrnstein's.
Maybe the weakest part of your book argues that we're now able to do a better job of picking political leaders.
I think you're misreading what I'm saying in that section of the book. The argument is that tight-focus, unscripted television adds information to the selection of political leaders that was not there before; no doubt other information is subtracted in the process. But being able to assess a given politician's "emotional IQ" -- for want of a better phrase -- is not irrelevant to making a good decision about who to vote for, and it's information that we had *zero* information about before recent TV for the most part.
Make no mistake about it, I think the current state of politics in this country is dismal. I just don't think you can blame the video games for that. In fact, one of the signs of how dismal the political world is is the very fact that they're holding hearings denouncing video games. Which is one of the reasons I wrote the book in the first place.
dan visel on October 27, 2005 4:26 PM:
I'm certainly not trying to throw you in with Murray & Herrnstein - please don't take that away. But I think Gould's argument for 2 is more complex than you're presenting it: he was arguing that the methodological error with intelligence testing in the first place was that the testers supposed intelligence to be something that could be quantified. He calls this an error of reification: just because something can be imagined (an abstract measure of intelligence) doesn't mean that it necessarily exists meaningfully in the biological world. The testers, Gould argues, were trying to measure something that only existed when they made it up.
I feel like there's a similar philosophical error in your book: what does it actually mean for people now to be smarter than people in the past? Can that be measured in any meaningful way? I just don't think that's something the massive difference between children now and children fifty years ago can be boiled down to a single number.
But being able to assess a given politician's "emotional IQ" -- for want of a better phrase -- is not irrelevant to making a good decision about who to vote for, and it's information that we had *zero* information about before recent TV for the most part.
This sounds nice, but is it actually borne out by history? You might look at Reagan - he was an actor, trained to emotionally manipulate. Or Sonny Bono or Arnold in his likeness . . . You're opening up a can of worms here, and it needs to be discussed at much more length.
I'm not arguing with your assessment of pop. culture becoming much more structurally complex - I spent much of the past weekend watching Season 2 of Arrested Development on DVD, being astounded at how interwoven the plot was. But I wasn't convinced by your book that there's a one-to-one correspondence between popular culture and intelligence, whatever that is. I think there's a great deal still left unwritten (both in your book & in the world at large) on the subject.
Steven Johnson on October 27, 2005 9:52 PM:
I could talk about the IQ issue forever, but I worry that it's a distraction here, since on some fundamental level I think my argument would be just as sound if the Flynn Effect was somehow entirely disproved. (Which is not even what we're arguing, of course.) But let me ask this genuinely open question to Dan and Virginia, and anyone else: do you actually think that IQ measures nothing at all? Or, more likely, that it only measures one's ability to take IQ tests? For example: do you think that if you were introduced to two people, one of whom had an IQ of 80 and one of whom had one of, say, 130 -- do you think you'd be able to tell which was which?
But as I said, it's not really about IQ for me. Let's keep it just restricted to what Dan's more or less agreeing with: the increased structural complexity of pop culture. Let's say that's a given, which of course it's not entirely, but in general that's the part of the book that there seems the most agreement about.
So the question about "making us smarter" relies on three additional assumptions:
1. That we have indeed gotten better at understanding that complexity. (It could theoretically be that the culture has gotten more complex, but we've always been able to process that much complexity, we just weren't being challenged by the entertainment industry. That's why I used the Hill Street Blues example, as a case study in how little we could take back then.)
2. That the skills trained in understanding that complexity are transferable to other, more important, domains.
3. That the skills that *atrophy* in this new environment (say, sustained literary attention) are not so great that, on the whole, we feel ultimately that the trade-off wasn't worth it.
I'm curious 1) if people agree with that summary, and 2) if they disagree with the book, which of those steps marks the falling off point? For me -- and I think this is clear from reading the book itself, and not just hearing the title -- my confidence in each step grows weaker down the chain. I'm solidly convinced that #1 is right, I'm fairly convinced of #2, and my gut says that #3 is right, but it's a close call. A friend of mine -- who doesn't wholly buy the argument -- was saying the other day that the passage about the power of the novel and the long-format work of persuasion is by far the most stirring in the book; his whole theory is Everything Bad is secretly a love-letter to the novel, which is pretty nutty, but you get the point. I definitely respect that there are trade-offs here, and I certainly don't intend the book to be seen as an excuse for apathy, as Dan suggested in his original post. But you can't assess those trade-offs if no one ever talks about the positives.
As for Dan's comment:
I think there's a great deal still left unwritten (both in your book & in the world at large) on the subject.
Truer words have never been posted.
dan visel on October 29, 2005 4:47 PM:
For example: do you think that if you were introduced to two people, one of whom had an IQ of 80 and one of whom had one of, say, 130 -- do you think you'd be able to tell which was which?
I think this illustrates the problem with IQ, which isn't so much in its supposed basis but in it's potential: IQ is something used to choose between people. It's only useful in application, which makes it, quite rightly, controversial.
You're trying to get around this by comparing two groups of people (those post-Flynn effect & those pre-Flynn effect, for shorthand those of the present & the past) who can't directly be compared. But I don't know if this gets your argument out of danger. I don't think you'd make the argument, for example, that Americans who have plenty of access to Lost and Grand Theft Auto are smarter - and thus better - than poor Mexican immigrants who haven't had the advantage of growing up with that - but if you're arguing (implicitly or not) that smarter is better, you're setting up other people who will run with that.
My problem with the book has been from the beginning that it's too deterministic: you're arguing that there's a direct connection between the complexity of pop culture & intelligence. But the world's not that simple: you're leaving out of your analysis not just the Mexican immigrants that I trotted out above but a whole host of factors - economics, for example. There's a more direct argument to be made that television (or games) have become more complex because viewers/players tend to get bored with simpler forms: the main importance for the industry is to keep the audience watching television or buying new games.
Boredom's interesting too: there seems to be a general sentiment that people have shorter attention spans now than they once did, which you could probably correlate to rising IQs were you so inclined. Is that good? Probably not. Is it connected to more complex popular entertainment? Maybe, in some way.
A paragraph from Donald Barthelme's "The Rise of Capitalism" (a short story, presently available here) which nicely encapsulates how I feel about the book:
"Capitalism sure is sunny!" cried the unemployed Laredo toolmaker, as I was out walking, in the streets of Laredo. "None of that noxious Central European miserabilism for us!" And indeed, everything I see about me seems to support his position. Laredo is doing very well now, thanks to application of the brilliant principles of the "new capitalism." Its Gross Laredo Product is up, and its internal contradictions are down. Catfish-farming, a new initiative in the agribusiness sector, has worked wonders. The dram-house and the card-house are each nineteen stories high. "No matter," Azalea says. "You are still a damn dawg, even if you have 'unveiled existence.' "
Why does this come to mind? Barthelme is attempting to deal with a ridiculously complex subject - capitalism - although he knows full well that the subject is well beyond the limits of what a short story can successfully discuss. This is a short story gracefully battling futility, and for this it seems a realistic portrait of the world. I particularly like how this paragraph zooms from the grandiose to the personal: regardless of how well capitalism is doing in Laredo, the narrator is still having problems with his mistress.
This is one of my problems with Everything Bad. It presents a grand model of the world - it's unveiling existence, if you will - with the argument that popular culture is making us smarter. I worry, however, about neglecting the human repercussions when abstracting - while a statistic may (or may not be) going up, what does this mean for our day to day life? Technology can't be painlessly extracted from the culture which created it. There's no Azalea in Everything Bad Is Good for You, and this makes me suspicious. Barthelme's untidiness seems to me more true to the world: he knew that things can't always be tied up in neat, easy to swallow packages.
Steven Johnson on October 29, 2005 10:26 PM:
Very interesting stuff; I'm enjoying this. I partly wish I could go back and do some kind of magical control experiment, and have you read the exact same book, only this time with the title: "The culture of complexity: the effect of popular culture on cognitive skills." Because I feel in a way that Dan (and others) are seeing the book's ambitions and message as being much more grandiose and unified than I think it actually is once you get past the title page.
A couple of examples:
I don't think you'd make the argument, for example, that Americans who have plenty of access to Lost and Grand Theft Auto are smarter - and thus better - than poor Mexican immigrants who haven't had the advantage of growing up with that - but if you're arguing (implicitly or not) that smarter is better, you're setting up other people who will run with that.
Well, you brought in the word "better." I *would* in fact be happy to say that smarter is better than dumb, or to put it more precisely: being good at system thinking/rule decipherment/multitasking/pattern recognition is better than being terrible at those things. But what I wouldn't say -- and what the book never says -- is that "smarter" is better than, say, "socially responsible" or "environmentally conscious" or even "tidy" for that matter. I'm just trying to look at one slice, with the acknowledgment that cultural slices are blurry.
(I'll leave the poor Mexican immigrants out of it, if you don't mind -- though I suspect they'd perform better at these sorts of tasks, if we bothered to test for them, than they do on traditional SAT verbal/math tests.)
But the world's not that simple: you're leaving out of your analysis not just the Mexican immigrants that I trotted out above but a whole host of factors - economics, for example. There's a more direct argument to be made that television (or games) have become more complex because viewers/players tend to get bored with simpler forms: the main importance for the industry is to keep the audience watching television or buying new games.
This is a great example of Dan wanting the book to be simpler and more deterministic than it is. Because if you go back and read pages 158-180, you'll see that not only do I 1) introduce the whole section saying that economics plays a huge role in driving the Sleeper Curve, but 2) go on to make the exact point Dan makes here: that there is money to be made by keeping audiences challenged -- and not bored -- by their entertainment, and that they get bored because they've mastered the skills that the older entertainment demanded of them. In fact, the whole second half of the book is precisely an argument for seeing pop culture as the intersection of a "host of factors" -- as in the appendix, where I even draw a little chart explaining that everything from neuroscience to macro-economics needs to be factored in when trying to make sense of any cultural system.
This is one of my problems with Everything Bad. It presents a grand model of the world
Believe me, I would love to have written a grand model of the world. But that's not the book I wrote. It's a look at one variable, and a hard-to-define variable at that -- much murkier than mere IQ. But it's an important variable, as important I think as the cultural variables that Neil Postman grieved for in his books, and it's one that was both 1) widely discussed in everyday life, and 2) entirely misunderstood. So it was time for a book setting the record straight. I said it at the outset here, but I'll say it again: if you come out of this book saying, "sure, we're getting smarter in these ways thanks to the culture, but these other developments in the culture are making us worse off on the whole," my response is: fine, I respect that; I might even agree with it. But we can't make that analysis if we've got part of the story -- the brain drain hypothesis -- completely backwards.
kim white on October 31, 2005 4:22 PM:
Responding to your question in an earlier comment: I'm curious 1) if people agree with that summary, and 2) if they disagree with the book, which of those steps marks the falling off point?
The falling off point for me happens before step 1. It's an interesting coincidence that some forms of popular culture seem to be more complex and at the same time IQ scores have gone up, but the failing of the book is that it does not show a direct relationship between increasing intelligence and popular culture. Our understanding or ability to understand and function within an increasingly busy culture probably has more to do with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, the 24/7 news cycle, cellphones, email and the reality of being constantly connected and on-call as it does with the plotlines of television shows and video games. So I'd say your step #2 assertion is backwards, the skills we build in our complex daily lives acclimate us for a particular type of pop culture junk food, not the other way around.
Gary Frost on October 31, 2005 9:38 PM:
I certainly enjoy this measured on-line discussion incited by a print book. Effective discussion is engendered because contentions and implications are referenced to a print work which is passively mediating the tangents. This is one option, that screen based reading is an accessory of print in the important sense that on-line discussion follows the print "links". The thresholding alone, bridging between reading modes and exercising interpretations that collate print and blog, is a promising exemplar of the future of the book.
marcell mars on November 1, 2005 12:26 PM:
[it is very tricky to use poor and excluded as examples in discussions]
if capitalism is very complex system and popular culture *makes* people better in handling that complexity than people who are excluded from the popular culture are most probably people who will be worst in handling the same complex system. (if being exposed to recent popular culture is the only (or significant) factor)...
people who are better in handling certain complexities are by no means better (people) in general.
the mechanisms how capitalism exclude and include are more complex than capitalism itself.
[/it is very tricky to use poor and excluded as examples in discussions.]
NewsIsGood on November 10, 2005 8:50 AM:
I have also got some criticisms of the book, although I must admit I base my understanding of it on Steve's article in The Guardian newspaper on games being culture.
If you fancy a gander, I have included the URL in the box up there. I guess you have to click on my name, or something.
In it, I invent a new sport, "MaraTRON". Because you too want to be Bruce Boxleitner.