May 17, 2005

Win the next argument with your condescending roommate with this book

It turns out, after all, that those countless hours in front of the tube weren't for naught: The endless games of Mario Brothers. The after-school, bowl-of-cereal-in-the-lap cartoon rituals. And the frolicking on the internet.

Oh, the time wasted on the internet.

Web surfing—jumping from blog to gossip column to, occasionally, a bona fide New York Times Style section article—has become our generation's guilty pleasure. It's what we do instead of work, or in between checking our e-mail. It's quite possibly the only reason our generation won't solve the laundry list of humanity's Big Problems. And, in Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad Is Good For You, it's one application of new media we shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying.

At first glance Johnson sounds like an apologist for all the volumes of Cliff's Notes students skimmed after spending the previous evening in front of the Nintendo console instead of reading for class.

But his argument becomes very serious, very quickly. Patching together threads from economics, technology, media studies, sociology, and neurobiology, Johnson argues that television, video games, and the internet have, over the last several decades, become increasingly sophisticated. The most popular video games and shows are the ones with delicately, if not confusingly layered subplots, offering public audiences what they really crave: recreational outlets that don't let audiences just sit idly back, but more actively participate, sharpening inference and problem solving skills.

This core thesis is entitled the "Sleeper Curve" after a Woody Allen film in which future scientists are amazed that 20th century society doesn't understand the health benefits of a diet of hot fudge and cream pies.

Decades ago, the most popular television shows, such as Dragnet or All in the Family, had simple, linear plots. Now, the television programs commanding the largest ratings and DVD sales are the ones that are most engaging, self-referential, and nuanced: The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The West Wing, and 24. Johnson goes to great lengths to analyze the evolution of television shows, offering plot complexity diagrams and character webs.

What's so important about these ultra-involved plots, Johnson contends, is that they force the audience to think. To understand a show with a dizzying number of subplots, such as The Sopranos, you have to keep them straight in your head. To master The Simpsons, you need an exquisite background in pop culture, politics, and cinema. And to fully appreciate Seinfeld's references to episodes five years ago, you need to, well, have watched all the five-year-old episodes.

Johnson buttresses his argument by applying the "Long Tail" argument of the internet. (The L.T. argument, championed by Wired editor Chris Anderson, says that the web's near-perfect market conditions allow non-blockbuster media to reach consumers, greatly increasing the profitability and scope of smaller, more obscure, and older works.)

Johnson's discussion of video games follows a parallel form. He traces the industry's growth from Pacman to Grand Theft Auto and The Sims, arguing that an extraordinary level of discipline and systems analysis is needed to succeed in the new breed of games.

In an introductory passage, Johnson hyperbolizes how books might be thought of if they were introduced to society after video games: "Reading books chronically underestimates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of game playing—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only the small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices."

Johnson makes clear that this example is a gross exaggeration. But it represents the core of his argument: The positive cognitive aspects of video games have been overlooked by a literature-based society that associates pop television and video games with only negative images—sex, violence, and time frittered away that could have been spent reading.

So what's to be made of Johnson's argument? It's as brilliant as it is troubling. How does a bibliophile—or for that matter anyone in the midst of receiving a $40,000-a-year education anchored in textual analysis and bodies of scholarly literature—accept the argument that, after all, they could be receiving the same education if they…just…played video games?

It's a question Johnson—a successful journalist and author of several books—is acutely aware of, and it's disappointing that he waits until the closing pages to admit that, oh, yeah, by the way, reading literature is still an important aspect of learning. Reading books has historically been the richest way to conceptually enter another world while strengthening a system of shared social values, though video game or television junkies might now disagree. But even with the emergence of intellectually stimulating forms of new media, literature still is the medium for developing linear trains of thought and piercing arguments.

Johnson points to the explosion in the growth of instant messenger conversations and the myriad of chat rooms and websites devoted to critiques of television shows like The Apprentice as evidence that the new media has ushered an increase in the amount of writing for the pop culture consumer. But even if the average chat-board post is more nuanced than previous social critiques around the poker table or at the office water-cooler, it's still a far cry from reading or writing a passage that develops themes and connects ideas.

This failure aside, Johnson's celebration of the new media against the conventional wisdom makes Everything Bad a worthwhile read. That is, if you can stop watching TV to pick up the book.