Everything Bad is Good For You – Steven Johnson (2005)

Everything Bad is Good For You is subtitled ‘How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter’ – and perhaps it’s true! Johnson first describes what he terms the ‘Sleeper Curve’ – the trend over the last 40 years or so for many aspects of popular culture to become more complex. This includes the plots of television shows (a beginning point with Hill Street Blues, to recent examples like The Sopranos), video games, and the internet in general (with the introduction of email, messaging, blogs, etc.). He says that the economics behind this trend is driven by repetition; that the most value in these areas is created when a game or show can be played many times, revealing more and more depth each time (since that’s what people want when they buy games, DVDs, etc.).

Then he shifts gears and discusses another trend, that the average IQ scores have been going up (i.e. a 100 IQ score today, still the average score, is quite a bit more ‘difficult’ to achieve than it was 40 years ago). The link between IQ scores and general ‘smartness’ is kind of hard to define, I suspect. While it does seem remarkable the level of complexity that people are willing to deal with in a video game, it’s unclear how these cognitive skills are used back in the ‘real world.’

On a side note, he argues that films are somewhat limited in the amount of complexity that they can offer, since they in general have a very limited amount of time to work with (2 hrs, as compared to a TV show that may run for many, many hours and therefore can keep many stories going for a long time). Likewise, for pop music he argues in an end note that the change there occured 40 years ago, when the long-playing album took precedence over singles. Since that time, even the introduction of the CD with somewhat longer playing times has not really changed the nature of pop music very much. Nowadays, however, it seems like we are going back to the era of the single, in that people often buy a single tune…

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