For The Someday Book

Book Review: Everything Bad is Good for You

Posted on: December 8, 2009

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson. RiverHead Books, 2005.

I really enjoyed the premise of this book, but did not find it to be a great read. Johnson argues against conventional wisdom that pop culture is making us all dumber, citing what he calls “The Sleeper Curve.”

Instead of moving toward the lowest common denominator in our television and movie watching and video gaming, Johnson make a convincing case that we are actually moving toward a greater complexity. He demonstrates that the multiple plot lines, inferences, allusions, confusing story lines and detailed social analysis required to watch contemporary popular shows like Lost, The Simpsons, The West Wing, 24, The Sopranos (or to play video games like Sim City, Age of Empires, Grand Theft Auto or Zelda)  are actually making us smarter. Audiences 50 years ago could not follow the complex story lines that we have come to love.

Johnson then goes on to cite neurological research about rising IQ tests over the last 50 years, and suggests that our increasingly complicated entertainment might actually be making us smarter. The role of the Internet in increasing interactivity and the demands made upon the viewer or gamer are helping our brains increase their capacity for problem solving, observation and analysis. He draws multiple inferences and makes a persuading case.

I enjoyed the argument, and he convinced me. All I had to do was contemplate how boring it is to watch an old episode of Leave it to Beaver, compared with the intertwining story lines and deeper characters of any contemporary sitcom. Or compare Gunsmoke to The Sopranos. It even made me want to learn to play video games, which have never interested me in the past.

However, Johnson’s writing style left much to be desired. It wasn’t anything particularly bad that I could put my finger on, but it just felt slow and repetitive. I had a hard time making it through the book, in spite of being interested in both argument and evidence.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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