Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter.
Johnson's book is an argument against a common assumption that contemporary popular culture makes its consumers dumber over time. He advocates for a new set of standards to assess the value of the popular media culture object based on what types of neurological functions video game or television program is allows it’s audience to exercise rather than the moralistic view of what the content of a storyline teaches. "looking at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not a series of life lessons" (p.14)
Through a formal analysis of the narrative structures of television shows, films and video games he quoting such diverse sources as mathematicians, game theory scholars and screenplay writers. Although he includes a personal narrative and perspective to make it more rateable, Johnson primarily takes a systematic approach to investigating the subject. He culls data from many sciences including specific Sociological studies and citing Neuroscience research into how the brain works. He points to several specific studies on game theory and supports his statements with a variety of texts from the established Media Studies and Cultural Theory cannon.
Johnson coins the term Sleeper Curve for thesis that mass culture is altering the cognitive development of young people in a positive rather than negative manner. Because today's popular cultural objects are more complex in narrative structure and form than that of preceding eras the cognitive skills developed by playing a video game or watching The Simpsons, are as valuable as those developed by reading classic literature or other older forms of popular media. He identifies two forms of intellectual labor which occur when playing modern video games: Probing – essentially learning the scientific method via exploring and poking around to builds knowledge with which to make educated guesses about how something works. Telescoping – prioritizing and managing sets of tasks that are nested one within the next, building up complete the larger task at hand. These are important skills in today's world that are quite difficult to teach in a linear way. Similarly, modern TV also develops certain skills set in our brains for example, the prominence of nonlinear narratives and multi-character storylines which require viewers to keep track of many ideas at once and do not allow for neatly packaged conclusions.
Audiences expectations are changing and so is the type of media they are consuming. We should not underestimate the "work" that the brain is doing when engaged with these films/tv shows/video games. Being merely a spectator in modern culture is becoming the less dominant experience. What seems passive is actually focus.
Yes, there is a lot of junk out there but in comparison to the junk 20 years ago today's junk ain't so bad and the good stuff now is really quite good.
This book admittedly does not have sufficient data to support its precepts properly in a scientific environment and Johnson hopes that the book will actually inspire more empirical research in this area. Regardless, it is a helpful starting point for thinking about what is unique to today's popular media and how to assess its value in a practical way, for example, to serve as a guide for concerned parents. Ultimately, a well informed and open minded exploration, I really enjoyed it - will post more personal thoughts when I have time.