Cultural historian Steven Johnson has had it with people who complain that videogames, TV shows, movies and the Internet are dehumanizing and intellectually barren pastimes. In fact, he argues, just the opposite is true. Johnson’s thesis is that each of these newer (and constantly evolving) forms of popular culture gives our brains the kind of workout we could never get, say, simply from reading.
It was his long-running interest in videogames that inspired his new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. "I’ve written about videogames in all four of my books," he tells BookPage from his home in Brooklyn, "[and even] when I was writing in an old web magazine called Feed," which he co-founded and edited. "We tried to do serious commentaries on games and not just treat them like child’s play. All through the late ’90s, I was following this road and watching really interesting games come out. At the same time, the mainstream media was talking mainly about these violent games and [the high school massacre at] Columbine: were the Columbine shooters influenced by playing these violent videogames like Quake and Doom and so on? I just thought there was this basic disconnect. It really seemed like the people who were doing most of the public pontificating about these games hadn’t spent any time with them."
The critics, Johnson says, seemed unaware that the best-selling videogames were generally nonviolent and quite complex to play. "I had thought for a long time," he says, "that there was some kind of argument to be made for appreciating the complexity and problem-solving and pattern-recognition involved in the gaming culture."
To link his ideas about the mental benefits arising from pop-culture activities, Johnson poses a concept he calls "the Sleeper Curve." He names it after a sequence in Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi comedy, Sleeper, in which a man awakens from a 200-year sleep to learn that such once-feared delicacies as cream pies and hot fudge were actually good for him—at least when viewed over the long run. It’s the same with current games and media, the author argues. While they may seem alarming up close or in individual instances, their long-range effect is beneficial because they gradually and inexorably teach our brains to adapt to the complexity of the lives we now live. In the process of engaging these and other technologies, he says, the average IQ of Americans has been going up steadily over the past 50 years.
A common denominator in pursuing these pastimes, according to Johnson, is that we have to learn the rules, conventions and situations as we go—in other words, adapt. "Adapting to an ever-accelerating sequence of new technologies also trains the mind to explore and master complex systems," he writes. "When we marvel at the technological savvy of your average 10-year-old, what we should be celebrating is not their mastery of a specific platform—Windows XP, say, or the GameBoy—but rather their seemingly effortless ability to pick up new platforms on the fly, without so much as a glimpse at a manual."
But why do emerging technologies and refinements always spark such virulent resistance? "There are a couple of things at work," Johnson muses. "The first is that we always translate these new forms, technologies and genres and evaluate them using the criteria developed to make sense of older [ones]. So the car is the ‘horseless carriage,’ and the [sound recording] is the ‘compact disc,’ even though the fact that it’s compact and a disc is not what’s interesting about it but the fact that it’s digital. We have this bias—we look at videogames and say, hey, this doesn’t have the psychological depth of a novel or even a movie. So this must be kind of a debased form that’s not worthy of any intellectual scrutiny. There’s also clearly a generational thing of people just not getting what the kids are into and assuming they must be up to no good. It’s an old story."
Johnson’s previous works include the bestseller Mind Wide Open, an examination of brain science that uses his own brain as a guidepost. He says his next project will be a book about the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, which he hopes to develop it into a "history of cities and how they heal themselves."