Thursday, March 6, 2008

Everything Bad is Good for You

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson (1573223077)
Rating: 8/10

The basic premise of this book is that video games, television and movies aren't necessarily the Big Evil that critics currently dismiss them as being. The author's main idea revolves around the Sleeper Curve - the fact that many of these games and shows promote critical thinking to such an extent that IQs have been steadily increasing over the years (they have been constantly reassessing the IQ so the average is always 100 - so someone with a 120 now would have been much higher several decades ago). This hasn't translated into better performance in school or the job market, just a reflection of IQ (and this isn't just a familiarity with IQ tests, as that levels off at about 5-6 points).

TV shows used to be limited to a plot-line encapsulated into one show. There were very few overarching themes (this is the Law & Order model). Dragnet was the previous incarnation of this. Then Hill Street Blues came on the scene, and with its 4-5 concurrent threads (plotlines), it was confusing for people at first. Looking back now, when we have 24 and the Sopranos (with about 20 threads), Hill Street Blues seems rather simplistic. This is the reason there are so many shows you just can't come into the middle of the season without being seriously confused. But modern audiences are used to keeping track of a lot of information at once, and it's what draws us in, makes us discuss it with friends, and spawns thousands and thousands of posts in online forums. And anything that spawns that much writing and interaction can't be all bad, right? Similarly with reality programming, the complexity comes not from the threads, but from all the various social relationships being built (Survivor, not Fear Factor). A quote from the book:

"Reality programming borrowed another key ingredient from [video] games: the intellectual labor of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities As each show discloses its conventions, and each participant reveals his or her personality traits and background, the intrigue in watching comes from figuring out how the participants should best navigate the environment that's been created for them. The pleasure in these shows comes not from watching other human beings humiliated on national television; it comes from depositing other human beings in a complex, high-stakes environment where no established strategies exist, and watching them find their bearings. That's why the water-cooler conversation about these shows invariably tracks in on the strategy displayed on the previous night's episode."

So we're not dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, necessarily. Sure, there are plenty of stupid, brainless shows out there. But as a whole, shows are considerably more complex and intellectually and emotionally stimulating than they used to be. My generation grew up on the Flintstones, not by any stretch a very complex shows. This generation is growing up on Toy Story and Finding Nemo - movies from which you can find new allusions and jokes on every viewing.

I highly recommend this book.

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