Review: Everything Bad Is Good For You

Steven Johnson's newest book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You" makes the controversial claim that popular culture engages us in a kind of mental calisthenics, resulting in the drastic changes in IQ distribution seen in the last 50 years. He describes beneficial effects of changes in popular culture - changes that have often been decried as hallmarks of societal demise - and shows how these new forms of media exploit our natural reward circuitry. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, Johnson says it's not so much the content (or 'message') of cultural media like Grand Theft Auto and The Sopranos, but the multi-threaded, interactive style of delivery (the 'medium') that engages us in a cognitive workout, and ultimately results in the drastic IQ increases of post-World War II America.

Johnson begins his book with a vitriolic quote from George Will: "Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of 'choice,' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in - video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity." This quote characterizes the dominant perspective on popular culture. But contrary to intuition, Johnson argues, today's most popular entertainment is enormously complex according to several different metrics, such as number of concurrent plot lines, the interdependence or 'nesting' of those plot lines, the Kolmogorov complexity of the networks relating the characters, and the kind of thinking required to make sense of all this complexity. And what's more, popular media has been trending towards increased complexity for the past half-century.

The economics driving these developments relate to a shift from "least objectionable" programming into "most repeatable" programming, rewarding those games/movies/narratives that embrace ambiguity, those that require the entertained to take a more active and exploratory role in comprehension, and those that reward the inquisitively entertained with yet more ambiguity to resolve upon the next viewing. This neuroeconomic "device" is perfectly designed to hijack the pleasure system by establishing an expectation of reward. It is precisely this type of cognition which has been shown to modulate dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, providing the fix craved by pack-a-day smokers, ice-cream fanatics, and gambling addicts alike.

And while the violence illustrated in games like Grand Theft Auto may seem to provide the cognitive nutrition equivalent to gambling, Johnson emphasizes (to use McLuhan's phrase) that the "medium is the message." It is not the content so much as the method of delivery that determines its most important effects: that of rewarding critical thinking and emphasizing interactivity, whether purely cognitive (as in complex narratives) or integrating motor skills as well (as in games). Whatever the detrimental effects of prime-time depravity might be, the positive effect of this new interactive media trend takes the form of "the Sleeper Curve": a 3-point increase in average IQ per year for each of the past 100 years. To put this change in perspective, consider this: a person placing in the 90th percentile of IQ in 1920 would place in the bottom third of a IQ test in 2000.

"Everything Bad Is Good For You" is an incredibly provocative piece of cultural criticism, and while light on experimental evidence for causal relationships between IQ increases and changes in popular culture, it more than makes up for that shortcoming by illuminating ways in which this evidence might be attained. The book's best moments call to mind the optimism of the early 90s for engineering an interactive techno-topia, but these moments are thankfully tempered with a rigorously historical perspective and a firm grounding in relevant neuroscience. The book should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in communication theory, and is highly recommended for those with an interest in integrating neuroscientific principles with entertainment and education.


Anonymous NeuroGuy said...

Sounds like a fascinating read - Amazon, here I come! I think the more challenging entertainment programming described in this post is carrying over into advertising, too. We're seeing more advertising that requires the viewer to think - the message isn't a simple "our product is better", or "our product does ____". Instead, we may see people in ambiguous situations with a relatively subtle product pitch. Shoe companies are certainly taking this path - the viewer may have to pay attention to catch a short glimpse of the product. Thanks for highlighting this book!

1/13/2006 07:05:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

I completely agree. In some cases, it's already a kind of "mind game" to figure out exactly what is being advertised.

yes, I'm thinking mostly of jeans commercials...

1/13/2006 07:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

We read this book in a class here -- Paul Bloom wanted to read it, so he assigned it to the class -- and it was very intriguing. Its certainly evocative, and makes a good case for a correlation, although his sweeping generalization to causality is certainly pushing it. Of the 20 or so people in the seminar, only about 5 said they were convinced at all (me among them), though.

1/13/2006 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

Hey Tim - my biggest problem with it is that his only hard data point is IQ! We should see other markers of increases in intelligence, besides changes in entertainment. Unless he can demonstrate that all conceivable intelligence metrics show a similar increase, he can't justifiably say that we're getting smarter, but only that we're changing/getting better at taking fluid intelligence tests.

here's an entertaining alternative hypothesis: given the right conditions, all change naturally trends towards exponential growth, whether you're talking about technological growth (hello, kurzweil and moore), reproducing rabbits (hello fibonacci) or fluid intelligence.

1/13/2006 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Fly said...

Lynn-Flynn Effect, R.I.P.


The Flynn Effect could reflect increasing environmental complexity. A competing trend is the lower birthrate associated with advanced education that could lower average IQ’s over time. The Flynn Effect may have “maxed out” so that increasing complexity no longer produces higher IQ. That might leave the genetic selection against high IQ as the dominant factor.

Advances in information technology improve everyone’s access to information, e.g., high-bandwidth, wireless connections to resources such as Google and Wikipedia. Likewise advanced biotech may increase IQ and other mental abilities. Human nature is changing.

1/16/2006 01:15:00 PM  

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