The following is a review I wrote a couple years ago, but never published. I will post it in three parts over the next three days:
Have you noticed how cell phones have replaced lighters at concerts? Where once we lifted little flames, we now raise tribute to a new addiction: modern technology. Welcome to our digital world, where every 3rd grader has a computer, and we’re hooked on television before we can walk. Conventional wisdom (including mine) finds something particularly apt in this connection between addictive drugs and modern technology. According to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television and its many offshoots has dulled our minds and undermined public discourse of the sort that previous, book-focused cultures supposedly maintained.
But what if this conventional wisdom is misleading? What if the attraction of these flickering screens derives less from their propensity for mindless distraction, and more from their participatory nature and underlying challenge? Addictive though they are, what if there are important aspects of the mind that such technologies actually nourish better than reading?
In his intriguing little book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson suggests that this may well be true. He argues that by focusing so exclusively on the immoral content and non-literary nature of modern entertainment, we have missed the benefits our society has gained from this addiction. He argues that we must balance pop culture’s perceived dangers with an even-handed assessment of its potential rewards if we are to make informed decisions about its role in our lives.
To that end, he offers an impressive catalogue of intellectual skills that modern media, especially video games, have been unconsciously teaching us. These include the abilities to probe and explore one’s environment, to problem-solve and hypothesize, to strategize and anticipate the future, to assess risks and make decisions, to overcome failure and pursue goals, and many more.
Johnson suggests that even the notoriously passive medium of television has been growing ever more interactive in recent decades. Increasingly demanding programming has been steadily abandoning the “flashing arrows” and predictable stories that Postman lamented, forcing its audience to “lean forward” and “fill in” to make sense of the complex plots and social situations depicted on screen.
He also provides some interesting (though controversial) reasons to connect this “Sleeper Curve” of quietly increasing complexity, with the rising IQ scores of the 20th century known as the Flynn Effect. For he notes that the types of IQ test which have shown the most improvement are precisely those which measure the pattern-recognition and problem-solving skills video games teach.
For all these reasons and more, this breezy but thought-provoking book deserves wide consideration to balance the derision of critics like Postman. While there is much to question in this volume, there is also much that is worth earnest reflection as we seek to make our way through this inescapably technological world.
Continued in Part 2.