Lazy Luddite Log

16.3.10

Smarter

I finally got around to reading Everything Bad Is Good For You (2005) by Steven Johnson. The central argument of the book is that popular culture is making us smarter. This is a surprising assertion given the conventional wisdom which says the very opposite. In this page-turner Johnson asserts that as pop culture become more complex it challenges our cognitive development. Johnson discusses the Internet and computer games but I will focus on the thing I am most familiar with - television.

Complexity

Johnson describes how television shows from successive decades have become more complex in terms of the number of concurrent plots that progress both within and across episodes. Over time they present larger numbers of characters and therefore more intricate relationship networks to comprehend. With the passing of time narratives have guided viewers less and allowed them to make assumptions and interpretations of information themselves. And the growing practice of referencing other pop culture products may foster an interest in things beyond the show itself.

Johnson describes the economics that has facilitated this change. Originally a TV show would make its money on its original run but now a show will make more money over time in the form of re-runs and video sales. With that in mind the shows that will be more popular are the ones that continue to be interesting over successive viewings - every time you look at it you discover something new.

Ethics

Johnson stresses that his argument relates to cognitive development rather than ethical growth. What interests him is the changing structure of media rather than the content itself and on those grounds he asserts that different media need to be assessed on different criteria. A TV show cannot be judged on the same grounds as a novel and they both develop different kinds of skills.

Frequently however it is ethical issues that concern the critics of pop culture and, even if they were to concede that it can make us smarter, they would say that it is undermining accepted standards of conduct. Do we want to become smart yet amoral? Johnson is silent on the matter but I would say that it depends on what ethical framework the critics want to assert.

In politics it is important to stand for things and yet sometimes the intensity of our convictions are shaped by those we oppose. I took to this book with relish because it challenges the assertions of the wowsers who have long attacked some of my favourite things!

The "TV makes us dumb" argument has long annoyed me because as a child and teenager I absorbed a lot of it and am sure that much of it - both non-fiction and fictional shows - has contributed to the pretty comprehensive understanding of the world that I feel I have. And despite its sometimes violent content I have never been a violent person.

Frankly there are those who want to control what we do rather than allow us to decide what is best for us. There is concerning content in pop culture but the important thing is to find ways of judging and filtering that for ourselves. The fact is that ethics are and should be a contested matter in a free society. The more politic of wowsers will respond that there is an ethical 'common ground' which needs to be reflected in media content and I would agree. But I would also say that the common ground may have changed since they formed an opinion on what that is.

Simplicity

Johnson says that critics of pop culture lament the passing of a simpler time and that by "simpler" they mean ethically simpler. In the old days of television good was good and evil was evil. Now however things are more ambiguous - we find ourselves criticizing heroes and identifying with villains in a story. This can be confusing but it is also more interesting and more realistic. It shows that humans are complex and that they have to make difficult decisions and explore ethical conundrums.

Still there is an aspect of past simplicity that I miss - narrative simplicity. Sometimes it is nice to just veg in front of the box and follow a basic storyline involving just a handful of well-loved characters. Besides which I think there are hidden levels of complexity that Johnson has overlooked in his analysis of past TV shows and those levels can be fun to explore.

In the past story-writers had to be more careful in saying things that exceeded the ethical common ground of the time and the methods they employed provide old shows with a more complex texture than Johnson recognizes. As kids we laughed at the slapstick in The Goodies (1970-1982) but our parents were laughing at the innuendo. During its original run M*A*S*H (1972-1977) viewers knew that it was set during the Korean War but that it was also allegorically referring to the Vietnam War raging at that time. As much as I value free and frank communication, I also appreciate the inventiveness that censorship has necessitated in the past.

And there is another kind of complexity that all TV shows develop once they are deemed old - historical texture. I love looking
at an old show for its incidental music, its fashions, its mannerisms. These days I am more inclined to focus on the decor in the background than I am to listen to the repetitive catch-phrases ("And loving it!") in Get Smart (1965-1970). I expect that Johnson would respond to this by saying it is okay to still be into these old shows because - new or old - they are all a part of the growing back-catalog of pop culture product that we can draw on at any time.

Overall I find the argument of Johnson both persuasive and mostly comforting. I say mostly because if it is correct then I have one abiding concern - why do we have to be smarter? If there are skills we need in life then it is worthwhile that pop culture can help develop those. But I worry that there are limits to how much complexity we can cope with and wonder whether some of us will be left behind by a more complicated world.

Cross-posted here.

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3 Comments:

  • I think we will all be left behind by increased complexity in time, some voluntarily, others kicking and screaming.
    It's a necessary generational cycle IMO.

    By Blogger thorin, At 18 March, 2010  

  • I expect you're right. And there are consolations for those of us who are resistant - so for instance computers get more complex but at the same time interfaces become more user-friendly.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 19 March, 2010  

  • Also had the following exchange on Facebook:

    Kaz Wylie:
    Ooh have you read any jasper fforde?? i think you will LOVE his work!

    Jason Spencer:
    Thank you for this, Daniel. Although I hardly watch TV myself these days I've not thought that it is particularly harmful either. I do wonder though it 'smarter' is a the correct word to do... maybe we're becoming more 'sophisticated' but I am aware that I could be splitting hairs with that comment. Another point is that not all people watch 'complicated' TV... sport for example is a cold medium compared to a drama serial.

    Daniel Berk:
    I have never read any Jasper Fforde but Wikipedia informs me his stuff is full of post-modern referencing so that fits.

    Sophisticated is a good word particularly as this topic refers to cultural stuff. I suspect the author uses the word complex because of his IT background. Also I suspect he would say that some things - such as much reality TV - is rather complex but hardly sophisticated! (-8}

    By Blogger Daniel, At 24 March, 2010  

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