everything bad is good for you: part 2 10.19.2005, 8:44 AM
posted by bob stein
it's taken me awhile to write the second installment of this critique (part 1 here) because i've been wrestling with how to expand the terms of the discussion. i've been reading the various reviews and discussions and even listened to the recent MIT symposium on the book. all of the critical energy is spent asking whether the conclusion -- that modern electronic media is raising IQ and certain problem-solving skills-- is based on thorough or good science; if it's "true" or not.
whether people end up believing that Johnson is 10, 20, 30, 70 or 90 percent right about the effect of media on IQ and problem-solving skills, they mostly accept his boundaries of the subject. i seem to be coming at it from another direction. the problem for me isn't Johnson's conclusion which i think is "sorta correct' but rather that by defining the question of media's impact so narrowly the overall effect of his argument is to turn people away from much deeper questions about the role of media in shaping how we see the world and how we behave in it.
i believe that the shallowness of the debate around Johnson's book is an excellent example of ways in which the effect of popular media has indeed been "bad" for us, not good. whether our IQs have gone up or not, the failure of most television and games to deal with moral complexity and the increasing tendency of TV news to entertain rather than inform have had made other more significant changes in our behavior -- most significantly we are increasingly unable or resistant to look deeply and all-sidedly into important questions.
matt on October 19, 2005 4:02 PM:
"most significantly we are increasingly unable or resistant to look deeply and all-sidedly into important questions."
this is dead on. i think that late critic and logologer kenneth burke would agree.
i just discovered this blog today, and i love it. i'm putting a link to it on mine. i know i will continue to be impressed.
virginia kuhn on October 20, 2005 3:11 AM:
I really liked Johnson's work with the now defunct FEED magazine as well as Interface Culture, a book that seems far more even handed and thoughtful, although I have not read all of Everything Bad is Good for You. That said, however, my initial reaction is that assigning any one characteristic such as higher IQ to a whole society is incredibly problematic. Walter Ong's penchant for these types of sweeping generalizations has been roundly critiqued since they are premised on the concept of a universal language user. Can we really take a group of privileged adolescent boys as the harbinger of some collective rise in intelligence? (And even if this were the case, so what? Our higher IQ's have certainly don't seem to be improving society in any meaningful way.)
Then again, television entertainment does seem to have grown more complex or at least more pluraistic--series such as 24 and Boomtown include multiperspetival accounts of events and as such at least gesture toward complexity, eschewing notions of monolithic truth/s. Certainly engaging with some of these media exercise one's intellect and potentially improve brain function.
Bob worries that people don't want to look at important questions deeply or from many viewpoints but suggest that while people often do appreciate the complexity of issues, they feel paralyzed by the notion that they can never discover all there is to know. And I wonder if this is part of the reason for the apparent rise of religious zeal; folks crave solid ground, a simple belief and a set of tenets by which they might live. The infamous Marxian theory about religion being the opiate of the people arose during another (similar?) period of vast technological change (an idea Johnson alludes to in Interface Culture when discussing Freud's Uncanny and cultural fear of automatons).
I guess finally, while I am so tired of the old tirade about how "kids today" are stupid, vacuous, apathetic and lazy, I am not sure I want to promote expending efforts on gaming and television particularly when the goals of such efforts remain so nebulous.
I will be very interested to watch this thread grow.
Dave Munger on October 20, 2005 8:43 AM:
I think the title really oversells the book. Johnson is not making the case that GTA Vice City or 24 are substitutes for reading; he's only observing the rise in IQ scores and trying to piece together an explanation.
It's still hard to say whether more complicated video games are the cause or the effect of rising IQs, and I'd argue that the allure of such games, regardless of their impact on IQ, is still quite dangerous.
That said, there really is something amazing going on in modern video games, and to a lesser extent, TV. Take a show like Commander in Chief. My whole family is engrossed in the show, with its multiple plotlines, its heroic, hottest-ever president. I have a 12- and 13-year-old interested in presidential politics. When I was 12, I was only barely aware of what the president's job entailed, and I certainly wouldn't have been interested in watching a drama focused on the oval office.
But at the same time, we also require our kids to play musical instruments, to do their homework, to read books outside of school. The difference today, I think, is that popular culture is so engrossing that it's perhaps more difficult to get kids engaged in anything else.
kim white on October 20, 2005 4:44 PM:
Maybe the problem is that narratives about real life have become so unengrossing. I watched the news religiously when I was a kid. I loved Walter Cronkite, I was fascinated by the reports from Beriut. I remember Nixon's resignation as the highlight of my childhood media consumption. It was so important in our household that we moved the tv into the kitchen that night and ordered pizza! I was really interested in actual presidential politics. I would argue that we have a similarly complex Nixon-esque administration now, but nobody seems to care. If watching plotlines like "24" increases our appetite for the nefarious and the complex, why isn't the whole country clamoring to know more about Rove/Libby-gate? Watergate was engrossing because, even at my young age, I could sense that adults around me felt that something very large was at stake and they cared passionately about redeeming our integrity as a nation. Absolutely nothing is at stake in the fictional world of media entertainment. We can watch without really asking ourselves questions about what we value and what we are willing to sacrifice. What I'm saying is, there is nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in escapist entertainment, but if Steven Johnson is right, then our intellect is being shaped by this stuff. I'm echoing Bob here, but I guess it can't be said too often--this is really not good.
K.G. Schneider on October 22, 2005 12:33 PM:
I read this post today, a few hours after re-reading Joan Didion's essay about political pageantry, "Insider Baseball," which is in implicit agreement with the statement, "most significantly we are increasingly unable or resistant to look deeply and all-sidedly into important questions." Everything bad is mesmerizing, but it doesn't make it good for you.