Pop Culture Is Good for Us

This week, Dana Stevens, Slate’s TV critic, and Steven Johnson discuss whether pop culture makes you smarter. In a recent New York Times Magazine excerpt from his book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Johnson suggested that increasingly complex narratives are making primetime television more and more challenging. Stevens, responding in Slate, argued that challenging programming is still hard to come by. Sensing the beginning of a promising debate, we asked Stevens to read Johnson’s book—which claims, more broadly, that video games and TV are far better for us than we think they are. Here, Johnson and Stevens continue their debate.

Dear Dana,

It’s a usually unfulfilled fantasy of book authors to get to corner their critics after a harsh review and force them to take a little of their own medicine in return. So, I’m very grateful to you for agreeing to debate my new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which makes the argument, as the subtitle suggests, that today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter in all sorts of ways we’re too quick to ignore.

I’d like to start by thanking you for adding a very useful phrase to our household discussions, at the point in your piece where you called my argument “deeply, hilariously bogus.” My wife has started using that in casual conversation around the house, as in: “Your excuse about the lack of a real mother’s day present is deeply, hilariously bogus.”

I realize that in your original piece you were responding to the New York TimesMagazine excerpt, and not the entire book, so I’m hopeful that now that you’ve had a chance to read the argument in a longer form its bogosity is less deep and less hilarious to you. But I’ll start the conversation by responding to some of your objections and try to put them in the context of the book’s larger argument.

Let’s start with your general skepticism about the idea that television might possibly be making us smarter. I do believe, as the subtitle has it, that popular culture today on average is having a positive impact on our minds. But the truth is that I don’t think that TV is driving that trend; I think that the interactive forms—games particularly, but also all the interactions of complex digital interfaces—are making us smarter, and TV has had to play catch-up with that newfound agility. In other words, if you take someone who has played Halo 2 all the way to the end and make them watch Three’s Company or Dallas, they’ll be bored stiff. They’ve been trained by a decade of cognitively complex interactive media to expect mental challenge from their pop culture, and not predictable, one-dimensional formula. And so television has responded to that development—and to the economic rewards of repeat viewing created by syndication and DVD aftermarkets—by producing shows that are much more complex on many different levels than the shows I was watching as a teenager.

So, this is a story of a trend in the media landscape: pop culture, in effect, making us smarter than it would have 30 years ago, when we were all sitting around watching The Love Boat.

Now let me turn to the part that I don’t buy in your argument:

As long as Johnson defines intelligence strictly in quantitative cog-sci terms (“attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads,” etc.), his case may seem solid.

As you know from reading the book, I don’t believe that these cog-sci definitions of intelligence are the only kinds of intelligence worth measuring. But certainly they’re crucial ones. And they’re not just limited to raw problem-solving skills. Take our ability to model social networks as an example: One of the things we do incredibly well as a species is create elaborate maps of social connection in our heads—we know that Bill is feuding with Bob, and that Amy is flirting a little with John, and just coming out of a relationship with Phil, and so on. That’s a key part of our real-world intelligence, and some people are better at it than others. So, one of the things I show in the book is that the social networks in play in the average television show have grown much more complicated over the past 30 years—in a sense, training our brains to follow ever-larger groups of interaction.

Now, it seems to me that if you accept that the case for the rise in this kind of intelligence is “solid,” in your words, then, well, I think that’s big news—not something to be casually dismissed. You know as well as I do that in the current debate about the state of popular culture, no one is saying “despite the fact that the culture has been getting more cognitively challenging, it’s also become more violent and offensive, etc.” They’re just saying that everything is chronically dumbed-down and offensive. (The book begins with quotes from George Will and Dr. Spock, talking about how “infantile” the culture has become, and how most video games are a “complete waste of time.”) There is nothing more conventional—on the left and the right—than the suggestion that the pop culture out there caters to the lowest common denominator. If the reverse is true even for part of the spectrum of intelligence, that’s not something to be taken lightly, if only because it inverts a lot of our assumptions about how mass cultures tend to work.

When you bring up the question of the violence on 24, and what kind of learning that promotes, I’m sympathetic to the point. I dislike the torture in shows like 24 and Alias as much as you do, but that doesn’t keep me from appreciating the formal complexity of the shows and the long-term trend toward increased complexity that I describe in the book. Fortunately, there are a thousand essays written about the problem of violence on TV, but almost none about the complexity. So, why isn’t it valuable to focus on the positive developments for a change?