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Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

reviewed by Anthony Cocciolo - 2006

coverTitle: Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
Author(s): Steven Johnson
Publisher: Riverhead Books, New York
ISBN: 1573223077, Pages: 238, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

I was piping WNYC public radio into my office on an early morning in May, funneling down my Starbucks coffee and situating myself for the long day ahead.  In the background, Brian Lehrer--the comforting radio voice synonymous with my daily ritual--was conversing with a brisk sounding gentleman.  This chatty gentleman had written a book with an intriguing but troubling premise: today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter!  Realizing the book’s author was Steven Johnson, who had written, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, I was compelled to pick up a copy.  

Although no stranger to modern media (I have admittedly spent more than one evening watching The Apprentice.), I have remained skeptical of its influences.  Perhaps the horrors of flipping through channels and accidentally landing on Fear Factor predisposed me to hesitation.  Or conceivably the ghosts of Adorno and Marcuse were unduly influencing me, lightly whispering into my ear the woes of commodity fetishism and the ways modern media reek havoc on the self.  Not ready to abandon subjectivity, and finding the life of the schizophrenic without reward, I have remained incredulous while engrossed in Strip Search.  But what if this was my opportunity to shed my liberal reservations and jump headlong into the media abyss?  Maybe this was the postmodern sublime, and all I had to do was relinquish control and allow Johnson to guide me through the chaos.  I hopped over to the bookstore with heightened expectation.


So what does Johnson have to say?  He argues that popular culture has become, on average, increasingly complex over the past thirty years.  Integrating this richer culture places heightened cognitive demands on its consumers, resulting in enhanced IQ scores and problem-solving capacities.  Johnson terms the irony of not having recognized the cognitive benefits of popular culture the Sleeper Curve, borrowed from Woody Allen’s mock sci-fi film, “where a team of scientists from 2173 are astounded that twentieth-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge” (p. xiv).  Like Allen’s cream pies and hot fudge, video games and television “turn out to be nutritional after all” (p. 9).

How does Johnson substantiate his claim?  He begins by observing video games, noting that it is not flashy graphics or violence that attract, but rather “their ability to tap into the brain’s natural reward circuitry” (p 34).  Using reward as a means of captivation, video games then immerse users in a world demanding constant problem solving, teaching “abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations…” (p. 59).  Johnson sees playing video games as akin to practicing the scientific method, where hypotheses must be made, experiments undertaken, and results gathered.

Johnson applies a similar logic of heightened complexity to the world of television, finding that dramas like The Sopranos challenge the mind to follow multiple threads and reality shows like The Apprentice demand that we track multiple relationships.  Unlike earlier television programming such as Dragnet or Dallas, which make every plot twist explicit, newer television programs require consumers to fill in the gaps and tolerate “planned ambiguity” (p. 81).  

If we accept that popular culture has increased in complexity, how does Johnson correlate it to increased cognitive ability?  He first introduces the Flynn Effect, which stipulates that IQ scores are growing from one generation to the next.  He then notes that those aspects which are least dependent on formal education, such as the ability to see patterns and complete sequences (the g score on IQ tests), are escalating faster than other aspects tested with IQ assessments.  Hence, “improved education cannot be responsible for the Flynn Effect” (p. 144).  He then concludes  that when “you spend your leisure time interacting with media and technology that forces you to ‘fill in’ and ‘learn forward,’ you’re developing skills that will ultimately translate into higher g scores.” (p. 149)       

Fortunately Johnson does not claim his conclusion is a scientific fact but rather a hypothesis that has yet to be proved.  However, despite Johnson’s half-hearted attempt at proving his hypothesis, I do believe that he is correct in asserting that some forms of media are providing a “cognitive workout” to consumers, particularly in the sense that such media provide an expanded opportunity to exercise and challenge problem solving skills. If we temporarily set aside some larger issues, many video games immerse their users into a fecund world of problems, solution finding, and rewards.  I think winning in these worlds can provide a sense of efficacy that is often lacking in “the real world.”  Similarly with television, one’s ability to get an inside-joke or decode the plot before it unfolds can be a thought-provoking and gratifying experience, especially if one is immersed in an environment where television offers the only means of reward.  

However, problem-solving is only one aspect of life (and in my opinion, not particularly the most important). Too often, contemporary discourses over-emphasize the importance of problem solving skills and ignore other aspects. I came to this awareness through my years as a Computer Science undergraduate, where the program demanded constant problem solving, and the students were more than willing and particularly apt in fulfilling this demand. Despite their aptitude for solving problems, the students were one sided: they could solve a problem, yet failed to take into account why such problems were being solved. Questions such as why x technological widget should be produced and what is its value to humanity were rarely asked.  Before a solution is sought for a problem in need of solving, the question should be posed, “Is this a problem worth solving?”  Without this emphasis on the larger social dimensions of a problem, one could easily envision a population which solves problems like machines and avoids questioning the significance of their actions.  I shutter to think of the types of abuses such a population could enact under ill-intentioned direction.  Although I may be jumping to conclusions that Johnson did not intend, I think if you only choose to emphasize one aspect of development, and ignore all others, you must envision what that society would look like if it were similarly myopic.  

My question for Johnson’s book is one of production. Can the children of mass-media and video game culture produce their own problems, guided by a vision of themselves, their contemporaries, and the world at large? If such a vision can be articulated, will it consider the dire circumstances plaguing most of the world, or will it only further the proliferation of problem solving environments, leading to a new generation of cognitive geniuses who shy away from the world’s authentic problems?

The problem with discussing the “content” of video games or television is that it always falls into the traditional categories of morals and ethics, where sex and violence are the chief concerns.  I do not wish to imply that these things are unimportant, or that modern media have nothing to do with them.  In fact, I find it rather amusing how much content research one can ignore for the sake of a single principle, such as the useful literature review by Dill and Dill on video game violence (1998).  However, beyond the traditional talk of sex and violence, how can we create a discourse that better incorporates media and technology with a vision for the type of society we wish to inhabit?  And if such a discourse could commence, might we ask ourselves the following: are solving complicated problems, irrespective of the actual problem being solved, the best use of our energies?  


Dill, K.E. and Dill, J.C. (1998).  Video game violence: A review of the empirical literature.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 3(4), 407-482.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 187-190
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12076, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:16:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Cocciolo
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY COCCIOLO is a technologist and doctoral student in the Communication and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests basically revolve around the possibilities for subjective, educative development within digitally fabricated environments. Currently, he is working to design and develop social approaches to digital environments and looking at the cognitive, affective and educational implications. For more information on Anthony’s work, please refer to his webpage at http://anthony.thinkingprojects.org.
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