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Book review: <i>Everything Bad Is Good For You</i> by Steve Johnson

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the cover of the book

If this was written forty years ago, it would be called "Bebop and Marijuana - Your Teenagers Could Do Worse."

Cover

Blood red, with slim sans-serif text and a nice black silhouettey graphic (a figure with a TV for a head). Not bad. My brother bought it from a second hand bookshop, knowing nothing about the author or title, so it obviously worked on him.

Plot

Johnson puts the unusual case that our much-maligned popular culture does not, in fact, "dumb down" society, but rather encourages (and reflects) the increasing median human I.Q.

The good

It's a fascinating hypothesis, you must admit. According to every generation before us (including the boomers, who once again fail to recognise the irony in the way they relate to their kids, and Generation X, who recognise the irony but have trouble parsing superficiality), the successive generations are drowning in a micron-deep ocean of sleaze, violence and stupidity. The media, run by the waning generations, never tire of reports that seventy-six percent of high-school kids can't tell you when 1992 was, or operate their legs without help. And video games! I saw one once! THERE WAS SHOOTING!!!!!

Yes, well. Johnson argues, concisely and entertainingly, that popular culture is (generally speaking) growing in depth and complexity. The chapters which I found most impressive are those which begin with Johnson really pushing shit uphill. Challenging. It's not too tough to convince a media-savvy audience that The Sopranos asks more of their minds than Starsky and Hutch, but what about motherfucking "Reality" "TV"? And what about that straitjacketed stepchild of the information age, video games?

Johnson makes solid cases for both. The core of his thinking, and much of his better factual research, is the fact that there are many different kinds of intelligence. Reality TV shows engage viewers (and occasionally provide moments of truth) within their spheres of emotional and social intellect. When I watch Big Brother and dismiss it as a bunch of high-school bullshit, the facts I am conveniently scaling down are, A- that I was shithouse at high school, B- the bogans in "the House" actually represent a social strata much better equipped to face the outside world than me, and C- if I paid as much attention to the trivia of relationships as they do, it might help me learn which bits are worth focussing on. In the end, of course, some things are indefensible, and Johnson sometimes props himself up on the argument that new crap, while still crap, is better than old crap. He's got some evidence for this, admittedly, but it's going to be a test of the reader's age and/or objectivity, I fear.

His arguments concerning video games are particularly gratifying for the long-time gamer in the heezy. Johnson produces a powerful variation on the old "This trend for novel-writing will be the death of our young people, isn't that right King Edward," argument. Johnson instead conjures a parallel culture where video games were invented a century before books, then hypothesises commentary regarding this new trend: "Disregarding healthy social norms, they shun the interactivity and stimulation of normal gaming, ignoring their peers and families, all in order to spend time in total isolation, silently absorbed in a passive, one-directional narrative, their faces slack with inactivity." Johnson's point is that there are many different ways to make your brain grow, and absorbing text is only one of them; just because it came first doesn't make it more 'healthy'. In line with this argument, Johnson is also probably the first 'real' writer I've heard to acknowledge a fact that non-gamers seem barely aware of: Video games, largely, are freaking HARD. They tap into our brain's reward matrices, but also the learning engines which perpetually circle the perimeter of what we know in search of the friction which signifies a new challenge. Of course, as distinct from reality, the challenges overcome have no meaningful reward - unless you count, as Johnson most certainly does, the exercise (and resultant growth) of the areas of our minds employed in these tasks.

Johnson has research to back up his claims, too, which is no small feat in such a sparsely ploughed field. Action games sharpen your reflexes, decision making and resource management games (get ready) enhance your ability to make decisions and manage resources. Sorry, I guess I should let the video games go now, but excuse me for being excited about an informed defence of a habit which has been, let's not mince words, demonized by the press since long before I first plugged in my woodgrain 2600.

The bad

Well, it's not very thick, and if you take away the acknowledgements and indices at the back, it's even thinner. While Johnson's prose is never less than readable, I must admit that I was primarily hooked by the subject matter and the satisfaction of hearing a fresh case put to paper. For anyone dis- or uninterested in the topics at hand (particularly those mentioned above, good examples of the book's approach and given considerable space by the author,) I can't vouch for the book's power to change your mind. There's no reason why it shouldn't. Johnson never advocates swapping books for Playstations, after all, in fact he's always careful to remind us that this is not his intention. But some people, I suppose, aren't about to change their mind about popular culture just because their parents said the same thing about it, and their grandparents before them said the same AND SO ON.

The average video-gamer is thirty. In several of my classes, age-wise, I'm evenly spaced between the DS-playing teenage girls (where were THEY when I was young?) and the teachers (who, if I think about it, are now the same age as all the scary teenage bogans smoking Holiday 50s in the Penny Arcade from my childhood). I'm not sure if that fact belongs in column A (good) or B (bad), but if you, like most people, would opt for the latter without much thought, then Johnson's got some facts you might want to hear. And if you're the kind of person who's voted Column A since they were old enough to persuade their parents to hook them up, then here's some dinner-party ammo. Use it wisely.

What I learnt

Quantifying intelligence is a very difficult thing to do. The "standard" I.Q. tests miss whole areas of the mind, and they also get bumped up every few years as people get smarter.

Which they are.

When a person is going through hell and (as a consequence) does nothing but sit home playing video games, that's not necessarily the worst thing they could do be doing.

In short

Title: Everything Bad Is Good For You
Author: Steve Johnson
Publisher: Riverhead
ISBN: 1594481946
Year published: 2006
Pages: 276
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Culture
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