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Pop-science for people who take pride in ignorance

  • Jun 29, 2005
There's been a bubble of books lately by mainstream media "science and technology writers." Some gentleman who writes about "science" for The New Yorker (his name escapes me at the moment) and who recently penned something or other about trusting your mind comes to mind: pure pap and not science.

Steven Johnson follows in this vein. His thesis is that the generations of video and computer gameplayers and other fun-seekers are really expanding their intellects in a 21st Century way. For example, Johnson tells us that intellectual inquiry is alive and well because millions watch "24 Hours" and "West Wing" and then scrutinize and annotate each episode on online forums with "an intensity usually reserved for Talmudic scholars."

Uh, I don't think so. Consider that "24 Hours," "West Wing" and their ilk are totsl fiction, fluffy entertainment, dealing with make-believe. The Talmud deals with issues central to faith, morality and in no small way with the history of at least one part of civilization. Johnson doesn't seem to understand the difference.

Essentially this is a feel-good book for dummies. It tells people who know nothing that they know something, for example all the tricks to playing an adventure-style video game. The National Constitution Center surveyed teenagers and found that while only about four in 10 could name the three branches of the federal government fully six in 10 could name all Three Stooges. Johnson does not apparently understand that while playing a videogame may lead to your becoming an expert in playing that game, it does not necessarily lead to your acquiring practical knowledge or the ability to think intelligently about real-world issues.

Johnson creates some laughable theses. For example, he exclaims that "[o]ver the last ten years - a period of unprecedented _fictional_ violence . . . the country simultaneously experienced the most dramatic drop in violent crime in its history." First of all, for most of its history, the United States did not maintain comprehensive statistical records of violent. The FBI comprehensive crime reports are of relatively recent origin. Second, Johnson's assertion is flawed because of other factors: demographics and mandatory sentencing. There are fewer violent crimes because the age group that committs most of them became smaller and more felons were imprisoned than ever before in our history. Finally Johnson, had he checked any facts whatsoever, would have learned that it is indisputable that today's violent criminals start earlier and are far more vicious than in earlier eras. So the overall rate of violent crime has dropped, but the nature of the crimes has grown more severe with the perpetrators growing younger.

So Johnson praises someone who has written and posted on the Internet a 164-page "walk-through" of a videogame, "an authoritative guide to one of the most popular games of all time." So what? That doesn't mean the writer of the guide has any practical knowledge or even a well-developed intelligence. A major computer "hacking" case was perpetrated by an idiot savant who spent his entire life taking scripts and tools written by others and using them to trespass computer systems. Johnson seems to be praising this kind of activity as a form of genius.

Somehow I suspect that Johnson holds those teenagers who know the names of the Three Stooges in higher regard than those who know the three branches of government or, worse yet, can describe them and their functions intelligently.


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More Everything Bad Is Good for You... reviews
review by . March 20, 2006
I found Johnson's thesis interesting, because as a parent and dedicated reader I have steered my children (20/16/15) away from video games. We have never owned a dedicated game console, and only purchased a small set of video games for our PC.    However, I find one gap in his link between the rising IQ scores and the increased complexity of popular media (TV, video games, Internet): the IQ growth started in the immediate post-WWII years, but the complexity factors he talks about …
About the reviewer
Jerry Saperstein ()
I am an e-discovery strategist, computer forensics specialist and testifying expert witness - and an avid reader.      Aside from technology books, I love thrillers, suspense, mystery, … more
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About this book


In his fourth book,Everything Bad Is Good for You, iconoclastic science writer Steven Johnson (who used himself as a test subject for the latest neurological technology in his last book,Mind Wide Open) takes on one of the most widely held preconceptions of the postmodern world--the belief that video games, television shows, and other forms of popular entertainment are detrimental to Americans' cognitive and moral development.Everything Goodbuilds a case to the contrary that is engaging, thorough, and ultimately convincing.

The heart of Johnson's argument is something called the Sleeper Curve--a universe of popular entertainment that trends, intellectually speaking, ever upward, so that today's pop-culture consumer has to do more "cognitive work"--making snap decisions and coming up with long-term strategies in role-playing video games, for example, or mastering new virtual environments on the Internet-- than ever before. Johnson makes a compelling case that even today's least nutritional TV junk food–the Joe Millionaires and Survivors so commonly derided as evidence of America's cultural decline--is more complex and stimulating, in terms of plot complexity and the amount of external information viewers need to understand them, than the Love Boats and I Love Lucys that preceded it. When it comes to television, even (perhaps especially) crappy television, Johnson argues, "the content is less interesting than the cognitive work the show elicits from your mind."
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ISBN-10: 1573223077
ISBN-13: 978-1573223072
Author: Steven Johnson
Genre: Health, Mind & Body
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
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