Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Berlin Johnson is the book project I mentioned in my Weekly Geeks #9 post. I really enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to others, but only with the caution that anyone seriously interested in cultural studies and pop culture is going to be left wanting more than the book has to offer. Everything Bad is Good For You is a compelling, but ultimately fluffy, defense of pop culture.
Johnson’s main argument relates to what he called the Sleeper Curve. In essence:
The most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all. For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.
Essentially, the best pop culture of today is more intellectually demanding than the pop culture of the past — video games ask you to problem solve without instructions, tv shows ask you to follow an increasingly complex number of competing narratives, and movies changing narrative devices demand both outside knowledge and the ability to think creatively. In many ways, new entertainment is forcing us to learn to think differently, which in turn makes us smarter.
I find Johnson’s main argument compelling, and I enjoyed reading a book that defended something I already sort of believed. I’ve never bought into the “Woe is me, pop culture is destroying our minds” arguments because they seem too apocalyptic. If we’re getting so much more stupid, how have we also achieved the advances in technology and other fields that we have made in the last several years?
One of the more creative arguments of the book is that one of the problems cultural critics run into is that they often try to compare the worst of pop culture today with the best of pop culture of the past. Instead, Johnson suggests we need to make fair comparisons, All in the Family to The West Wing, for example. I was really persuaded by this argument because it’s something I hadn’t really considered, and I liked that Johnson tried to consider the pop culture question differently than other critics.
However, this is also one of the problems of the book. While Johnson is convincing in his argument that the best of pop culture today is better than the best of pop culture of yesterday, he doesn’t do much to compare the lowest common denominator. And while he makes passing references to the complaint that media is becoming more violent and morally corrupt, he dismisses those claims as not the subject of his book. While I’m not sure that I buy the idea that video games are directly responsible for violence in children, they are pervasive enough that Johnson should have addressed them to a greater degree.
In many ways, I just felt like the book wasn’t academic enough and didn’t address enough topics to warrant the claim in the title that everything bad is good. It was more of a pop culture explanation of why pop culture isn’t bad for you, rather than an academic study that you can compare to the other studies we hear about. Not that I doubt the argument or Johnson’s research, I just wished it felt more like something I could use as evidence in an argument rather than a fluffy read to make me feel less bad about my addiction to Aaron Sorkin dramas.
Links to Enjoy:
- “Watching TV Makes You Smarter”, an article by Johnson in The New York Times from just before the book was published
- “Brain Candy: Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up?” by Malcom Galdwell of The New Yorker
- Steven Johnson on NPR
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!