Author Steven Johnson certainly has a fun take on pop culture: he argues that it’s making us smarter!
But before you burn your Hemingway, buy the complete first season of the CW hit series The Vampire Diaries and expect your IQ to skyrocket, you should understand where he’s coming from.
His book Everything Bad is Good For You is a compelling argument that the popular culture of recent decades has grown in complexity and demands much more cognitive labor from the public than ever before. Johnson demonstrates how today’s pop culture forms such as movies and TV shows give us many of the cognitive benefits that we traditionally associate with reading, such as following multiple threads and complex narrative techniques.
This will come as a relief to viewers who have had to labor through awkward conversations with friends after an episode of 24 or Mad Men, struggling to hide the fact that they had no idea what just happened.
Johnson even takes it a step further and shows us that how video games and the internet are sharpening new mental skills, including problem solving, guesswork and emotional IQ.
Pop culture gets a bad rep these days, and we’ve all heard reports of how younger generations love nothing more than to sit around gawking at a glowing screen while their brains rot. But anyone familiar with today’s popular shows or gaming culture knows how complex these forms actually are. Johnson goes beyond simple cultural critique and into the realm of neuroscience in order to support some of his claims.
Johnson doesn’t mean to say that today’s pop culture is aesthetically on par with works of great literature; instead, he urges us to evaluate the mental exercise required when determining if it is “good” or “bad” for us.
Still, I wonder what he would say about the Family Guy episode in which Stewie uses the pages ripped out of Brian’s Dostoyevsky to make the fort from F Troop.