Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, is out to
topple the reigning critiques of mass entertainment. Nostalgic
defenders of the printed word have it wrong, he says. Far from undoing
our capacities for thought, prime-time television and the leading video
games are building cognitive skills — systems analysis, pattern
recognition, and social organization, for example — in ways unmatched
by reading. In short, pop culture is teaching us to get ahead.
Johnson may be right. But he also misses the point. Unlike copies of SimCity or episodes of Friends, all intelligences are not created equal.
Before we adore technologies that soften our (bookish) capacities for language, empathy, and self-knowledge we might do well to ask the value of an electronically conditioned intellect. That is, after all, the center of the debate at hand: Should it frighten us to know that when a reader dies, a “viewer,” or a “gamer,” is born? Or, put another way, if I.Q scores continue to improve, as Johnson assures us they will along with video game playing and basic cable subscriptions, does it even matter if verbal SAT scores fall?
The collective effect of this exposure, if you accept Johnson’s thesis, is unmistakable: increased national intelligence year-over-year for the last thirty. The simple proof: I.Q. scores are up. Quite appropriately, Johnson calls this educational effect the Sleeper Curve in homage to the classic Woody Allen flick “Sleeper”, in which futuristic doctors count cream pies and hot fudge as nutritional giants.
I have various quibbles with this conclusion. For example, Johnson’s deduction is superficial (it’s not diet, and it’s probably not school, so it must be mass entertainment making us “smarter”) and suspiciously supported (he measures improvements using non-verbal, spatial recognition tests, exactly the narrow area in which one would expect improvement).
But rather than bore into the minutia which others have already addressed, I want to address a single flaw, a flaw which, as I think about it, seems to enlarge itself concentrically until it embraces everything. It’s a matter of intelligence. As Johnson has it, human intelligence is reduced to an instrumental tool for the cocktail hour, no more laudable than muscles at the beach. His is a trivial, non-cumulative, even regressive intelligence. It is hucksterism, rather than humanism. Which again begs the question: What is so great about an electronically conditioned intellect?
Probably some readers are getting the impression that I deplore the march of electronic media, the popular culture it supports, and the popularity of writers such as Johnson who author its worth. Not so. Say whatever else you like about it, the present is unavoidable, and, as Johnson makes clear, even in ways beneficial. But this reverence for the intelligence of the future is, of course, utopian, which is to say reality cannot be expected to support it.
If we are to believe that the battery of television and video games are on the whole a positive force, we must somehow reconcile the fact that the intelligence Johnson defends is of the most selfish sort — shortsighted, egotistical and ultimately frivolous. There must be a distinction made between intelligence that makes us better citizens and intelligence that makes us better business people. Or, put another way, intelligence that reveals our humanity, as opposed to just our public face. Johnson fails to distinguish between the two. I.Q. scores are up, he says, as if the case is closed and Everything Bad is Good For You is more than an intellectual sugar cube—a placebo.
Popular culture may not cater exclusively to slackers and dummies, as once believed, but it does fray the fabric of American community. It atomizes and isolates. First, when we each engage with the screen, joined in our ignorance of each other, and again when we engage with each other without words to express how we feel, we are alone. We engage in dramas, play video poker, solve algorithms and navigate chaotic fantasy worlds, yet remain alone, strangers to each other and to ourselves.
Worse, education conducted at the hands of popular culture, whatever its virtues, is staggeringly cancerous to social trust, social connections, and civic engagement. An impressive body of literature (all ignored by Johnson) suggests that heavy watchers of TV, for example, are unusually skeptical about the benevolence of others. They overestimate crime rates and join fewer community groups than average. Plus, as Neil Postman has noted, they measure truth in terms of “is it boring?” rather than “is it consistent?” Hardly the preferred yardstick for a democracy.
Books, we have been repeatedly forewarned, are dying. And so is print culture. Such is the vision that emerges from the funeral procession of books lamenting or celebrating the coming post-literacy. Notably, Everything Bad is Good For You is one of only a handful that sheds no tears for the word, choosing instead to cheer on television and video games. In place of moral counsel, life lessons (discounting of course “A Very Special Episode Of”), or nuance, we have higher I.Q. scores. Only the Mario Brothers stand between Mensa and the masses. It’s a shame I.Q.s don’t of themselves help the masses very much.