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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter

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From the New York Times bestselling author of How We Got To Now and Farsighted

Forget everything you’ve ever read about the age of dumbed-down, instant-gratification culture. In this provocative, unfailingly intelligent, thoroughly researched, and surprisingly convincing big idea book, Steven Johnson draws from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and media theory to argue that the pop culture we soak in every day—from Lord of the Rings to Grand Theft Auto to The Simpsons —has been growing more sophisticated with each passing year, and, far from rotting our brains, is actually posing new cognitive challenges that are actually making our minds measurably sharper. After reading Everything Bad is Good for You , you will never regard the glow of the video game or television screen the same way again. With a new afterword by the author.

254 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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About the author

Steven Johnson

56 books1,727 followers
Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California, and Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and three sons.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 548 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
274 reviews781 followers
July 15, 2010
Despite the critical readers on here giving this book one star for not, you know, being RELIABLE, I'm going with four. I'm rating it based on what I usually rate books on: entertainment value.

That said, the logic here is severely shitty. Thesis: modern films, television, and other technologies are more complex than they used to be. People nowadays have slightly higher IQs on average than they used to have. Therefore, modern media is making people smarter.

This is flawed in too many ways to name, but I'm gonna give it a shot: first of all, I don't think "Transformers 2" or "Harry Potter 6" are really that much more complex than "Alien" or "Taxi Driver," thankya very much. Movies now, as I notice every fucking time I go to one, FUCKING SUCK THESE DAYS. Have y'all seen "Repo Men"?

Television, if we just look at shows like "The West Wing," "House," "Lost," and "The Sopranos," looks like a pretty thoughtful terrain. But we can't forget about "2 and a Half Men," "The Flava of Love," and "The Bachelor." Television has more stations now, so the variety is a lot greater than it was back in the days of "Green Acres," but most of it's still pretty stupid.

And other technologies? Well, there's this website, which pretty much proves the web is frickin' awesome. But, you know, there's also this: . The web is a pretty mixed bag. We have greater ACCESS to knowledge through the web, but I don't think that proves the average man in Pennsylvania actually uses it for anything but finding videos of midget sex or watching goofy videos on YouTube. (No offense to PA; that was a totally random state.)

Those are my qualms with the first of the three sentences of his thesis. Let me sum up for the rest: The IQ test is fallible and culturally biased, and even if sentence 1 and 2 were sufficiently proven, the third sentence wouldn't hold true, because correlation doesn't prove causation.

Why would we not assume that, as people naturally get smarter through evolution or eating their Wheaties, they will start wanting more complex forms of entertainment? Why is entertainment the cause, not the effect?

Okay, done ranting about the logical suckiness at work here. THIS BOOK WAS FUN! His arguments were outlandish and creative, and I would love to think that by watching "The West Wing" I'm strengthening my synapses. I'd also love to think that my time playing "Grand Theft Auto" was me challenging myself with a difficult game. I personally thought I was just running around and shooting people with flamethrowers. The coolest thing was when you were such a menace that the army tanks started coming after you! Did anybody actually play that game the way they were supposed to?

And is "The Legend of Zelda" any more challenging than playing poker, or Dungeons and Dragons? D&D go back a long way, and poker a looooooong way. So, no. Homeboy doesn't know what the shit he is saying.

Read this for some nonfiction entertainment, when you want some trash but don't feel like reading something about vampires or killer crabs.
Profile Image for Arlynda.
9 reviews4 followers
December 10, 2007
This book is so poorly written that I don't know where to begin. By the end of the introduction, Steven Johnson has already told us that he doesn't care about morals, and apparently neither should we. Well, I do. Knowledge with out serious thought about the implications of misuse of such knowledge is worse than ignorance. I think that nuclear technology is amazing, but I don't think that we should make bombs out of it and use them. Morals helps us to decide how to use technology. I think that a discussion of morals is very important to assessing any impact of technology on a society.

I would tend to think that the "increase" in the IQ of the general population has more to do with the fact that more of us are more educated. My grandma dropped out of school in eighth grade, my grandpa wouldn't have been considered functionally literate. A story like that is not as common as it use to be. More of the population can read, more of the population learns about history, more people learn about science. We are more well educated. Also, I have a BS in physics. The physics that I was learning as an undergraduate is what people were writing PhD dissertations about and spent their whole lives studying in the early 1900's. So, one could argue that as an undergraduate in physics I knew more physics than did those making amazing discoveries at the beginning of the 20th century. That is what an IQ type test would tell you. I don't think it has anything to do with video games and TV, I think it has to do with the increase in the breadth and depth of education in our society.

Don't read it, it is a waste of time. Find a good novel, there are a bunch on my list, curl up and feel like you haven't wasted time in your life.
Profile Image for Greg.
9 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2010
Correlation and causation; there's a difference, and the author doesn't understand it.

A sensational thesis opens the discussion: those once-dismissed hours spent playing video games watching reality TV are actually making you smarter!

Sounds too good to be true, right? That depends if you buy the author's argument: the average IQ has continued to rise over the past 30 years due to more intellectually demanding media, i.e., more complex video games, film, and television. Sadly, the author's case fumbles through specious argumentation and an embarrassment non sequiters. To wit, he boldly asserts the Lord of the Rings film trilogy to be more intellectually stimulating than the original Star Wars series. Why? Because there are more characters. That's it. That's the argument. Aside from Lucas himself citing Tolkien's trilogy as an inspiration for Star Wars, the character count should hardly be thought to represents a film's intellectual bent. Alas, this is the type of evidence you can expect.

Speaking of evidence, the citations annoy the hell out of me. As in, there aren't any. Not one. There are a few occasional notes in the back referencing a specific resource for a certain page, but these rarely cite statistical, scientific studies or sound evidence, and no footnotes indicate their inclusion (so you never know when to flip back while reading). And this is the failing point of the book - information stated as fact lacks any statistical backing. It makes me wonder if the poor citation format was intentional since the book's scholarship rests on nothing sturdier than conjecture.

To be honest, this reads like an undergraduate paper looking for those 1000 extra filler words. Read it for fun, or entertainment, or whatever-- it's not all bad, and he makes a few clever insights into our shifting media ingestion. But for the love of Durkheim, don't consider it science.
Profile Image for trivialchemy.
77 reviews481 followers
June 14, 2007
This book makes the following its central thesis:
Because popular media (TV, video games, movies, etc.) are becoming more complex, and requiring more cognitive work to process them, they are making us smarter. This is the so-called "sleeper curve."

The logic of this argument is identical to the claim, "market heroin is steadily growing in purity, therefore heroin is good for us." HOW DOES ANYONE BELIEVE THIS RUBBISH? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that its target audience consists of vapid-headed slobs sucking down oreos and 4 hours a day of Joe Millionaire with their globulous buttocks quivering inside their couch cushions, desperate for someone to affirm the worth of their pitiful, mediacentric existence, now would it?

See Ryan's review from 06/04 for some suggestions on why Johnson is an incompetent sociologist as well. If you gave this book more than 1 star, you are an unembarrassed dolt.
Profile Image for Kai Schreiber.
Author 2 books21 followers
February 5, 2013
A refreshing thesis and a convincingly told story, paired with a healthy dose of cultural and psychological optimism.

This would ordinarily have gotten four stars from me, but I give it five to cancel the silly deluge of very bad reviews based on sciencey catchphrasing and moral bias.

Yes, "correlation is not causation", thanks for the cliché, but Johnson doesn't really claim to have good evidence. In fact, he says quite clearly that he could have made the argument, as his evil twins on the other side have done repeatedly, purely ad hoc and without any data to back it at all, but chose not to in order to encourage research being started. And I wholeheartedly agree that too little is done to counter the insulting arguments cropping up every time somebody does something bad and has played a computer game before doing it.

Of course it is entirely possible, likely even, that the Flynn effect of rising average IQs is caused by a number of other things, and that the complexity of entertainment has risen along with the rising demand of audience brains for quality input. But Johnson has compelling arguments for technological changes causing more complex content (mainly the repeatability mechanism in all its forms), and repeated exposure to challenging content trains cognition. Evidence or no, this is hard to dismiss.

But the most important contribution, I feel, is the shift of perspective, viewing popular culture not as a poison, but as something worthy of study, an under appreciated form of cultural expression, and wholly inadequate straw man for the need for condescension some cultural factions seem to feel.
Profile Image for Ryan.
16 reviews12 followers
June 4, 2007
i wanted to throw this book against a wall, many, many times while reading it.

my main problem with the book is the lack of data to support the hypothesis that johnson argues. if it were simply a polemic arguing that media has become more complex, and that complexity warrants closer inspection and not dismissal, i'd forgive it.

however, johnson begins the book by admitting that he isn't a scientist and then goes on to try to support his claims with scientific data. i'm not a scientist either, but trying to correlate the general trend of rising IQs over the past fifty years to the growing complexity of media is absurd. he notes that improved education and nutrition could also be responsible for this trend, but he still uses the trend in an anecdotal way to support his hypothesis.

Profile Image for Michael.
214 reviews54 followers
December 16, 2008
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson attempts to de-bunk the popular narrative that the culture industry is making us stupider, by feeding us more and more banal television shows, video games, and movies. He argues for understanding a Sleeper Curve in popular culture that is actually making texts more complicated over time. That is, many video games, television shows, Internet sites, and movies are making us smarter by challenging out mental faculties: we have to make more mental and social connections, these texts leave out information that we have to figure out, and they rely on delayed gratification, and we have to figure out the rules of the game/text because they aren't told to us explicitly.

Johnson shows that IQ tests scores have been improving over the last few decades, and while it's problematic to compare IQ tests across cultures, races, and locations (because the tests probably are biased), it's not as problematic to compare them across generations. (He readily admits that IQ tests don't actually test all of our mental capacities, but rather serve as an indicator that at least gives us some data.)

I think Johnson provides some pretty good nuance to his book and gives some pretty strong evidence for his case. A lot of the first half of the book reads like James Paul Gee's What Video Games Can Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, though without the methodological explanation and some of the depth. Additionally, Johnson is clear to explain that he's not advocating quitting reading books, and that books do provide a kind of intellectual work unique to them. He's less likely to see declined book reading as a threat to culture, because he notes that all sorts of activities are in decline (television viewing, movie going, etc.). Also, he's not advocating playing video games 24/7, and he cautions that his book is not about the effects of texts' contents (e.g., violence, sexism, etc.). He argues that "[t]he work of the critic, in this instance, is to diagram those forces [neurological appetites, economics of culture industry, changing technological platforms], not decode them" (10).

Overall, this is a pretty good read and makes a convincing case. I am inclined to agree with him, though I do wonder more about the economic effects of all of this, and who benefits and who is left out of his narrative. Johnson, defending himself against critiques of his book that he is supporting capitalism, notes that some of the effects of gaming culture have been to question capitalist notions of private property, and also states that he sees himself as "much more of a technological determinist than an economic determinist." He doesn't want to ask "What is capitalism doing to our minds? Rather, the question is: What is the reigning technological paradigm — combined with both market and public-sector forces — doing to our minds?" (205). While I don't see myself as much of a determinist, I do think there is much to be said of the economic consequences (who is getting rich, and who is "feeding" those that get rich). Additionally, what does it much matter if we are getting cognitively smarter when most those energies are focused on perpetuating a capitalist system? Okay, that's cynical. It matters. But, from my vantage point, systems analysis needs to be coupled with an imagination for what's outside the system: what other worlds are possible, and how can they be achieved? Perhaps this is best left to follow up work to Johnson's text.
Profile Image for Daniel Solera.
157 reviews17 followers
July 23, 2009
Ironically, this was a difficult read. Not because the theme is hard to digest, or because Johnson's diction is criminally elevated (neither of those are true), but because I couldn't really decide whether I believed him.

The crux of Johnson's argument relies on the increasing complexity with which our popular culture is deliberately built, a complexity which forces its audience to multi-task, follow and understand multiple narrative threads, all the while developing advanced cognitive abilities and therefore becoming “smarter”. He then goes on to describe the high-level thinking required of modern video games, movies, television shows and the internet.

I agree with him on only one of four claims.

It's no secret that I love video games, so forgive the bias. Because of rapid technological advances, many of the newest video games play cinematically, feature engrossing characters, convoluted storylines and play right into Johnson’s argument. He frequently cites Grand Theft Auto and popular simulation-based games like Civilization and the cultural phenomenon The Sims as landmark games that challenge the intellect much more than PacMan. In these cases, I agree. These multifaceted games are possible because of technological innovation, and required with these improvements are players who can handle tasks of greater difficulty. As a footnote, it is a mystery why Johnson overlooked Myst, an inarguably difficult experience and once the all-time bestselling computer game as an example.

But when it comes to movies and television shows, I don’t buy it. Although both mediums have benefited from technology and increased budgets, saying that newer movies are more complicated than older movies is a stretch and Johnson definitely cherry-picks his examples. He compares “Bambi” to “Finding Nemo” as an example of this progression, citing that you have to follow the lives of twenty characters. Even though it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, you can process the majority of “Finding Nemo” by following Marlin, Dory and Nemo. He even cites the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is based on books that were written sixty years ago. To say that modern films are more complex today than they were in decades past is an obviously visual one, not one at all based on narrative technique. But that’s just me.

Finally, the most criminal case he makes is that of the internet. Like his modus operandi for the previous three arenas, Johnson picks only the true virtues of the internet to illustrate his point, and conveniently avoids the intellectual perils of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc. He also reassures us that though we are reading fewer books, we are “spend[ing:] much of [our:] day staring at words on a screen: browsing the Web, reading e-mail, chatting with friends, posting a new entry to … 8 million blogs” (183). Because nothing increases our intelligence like reading amateurish articles devoid of any proofreading. This is the kind of apologetic ass-covering that plagues this book from start to finish.

In short, no, I don’t think reality television promotes high-level thinking, movies today are no less compelling and layered than they were forty years ago, and reading blogs over published works by reputable authors doesn’t make you a smarter person. Sure, you can make an argument for each of those if you pick and choose, but all in all, I’m not sold.
Profile Image for Clif.
450 reviews123 followers
September 1, 2019
This little book might be considered a tiny landmark, no let's call it a bookmark in the history of Western man.

Time was just about everything that brought pleasure in this world was said to be bad by authority (the church). Even such harmless things as dancing or getting a little rowdy with too much wine could bring on guilt. One dared not speak of sex! Going to confession to escape guilt was a very common activity in the hope of forgiveness. Agreement was general that only the next world was a good place while this one was laced with traps set by the devil to take a good soul off the straight and narrow path to salvation in the afterlife.

Thank goodness we've left that time behind. And have we ever! Entertainment is now everywhere in a multitude of forms all very enticing leaving a person in a fix about how to spend time. There are critics of popular culture, but they are ignored by a populace that spends billions on everything from video games to movies to cable TV. Fun is the word of the day and would anyone even think of feeling bad about too much entertainment?

There must be a few else who would be interested in this little book that seeks to soothe anyone who feels a tad guilty for pursing leisurely things. We live in Disneyworld now where restraints are gone and those importuning us to have more fun (for a fee) are smiling at us from all sides.

Back in those long gone times of oppressive moral guilt, an author would have appealed to some aspect of religion to soothe it. It might be written that Jesus enjoyed a glass of wine from time to time and that he was all about forgiveness. There'd have to be a moral slant, that you are a better person because of the little pleasures you enjoy now and then.

But these days, science is all and unless one can make some kind of hypothesis about real facts that can be tested and evaluated, there'd be no credibility.

Steven Johnson takes up this challenge, attempting to show that our brains are improved by all the TV watching, the video-gaming, the movie going that we do. Sit on the couch watching Naked and Afraid or bend over the Xbox controller with Red Dead Redemption II and you're beefing up your brain without even realizing it! He cautions that you shouldn't spend your life playing Final Fantasy or watching reruns of The Simpsons, just as the ancient Greeks said, everything in moderation, nothing to excess. Point taken.

The book isn't long, but it does take patience to wade through the examples he gives of scenes from West Wing or Hill Street Blues that he believes challenge our thinking processes. I Love Lucy was just plain silly compared to the deep plots and complicated action we now follow. While we've been enjoying the ride all along, these shows are pulling us on to ever greater mental ability as they get more complicated. He's eager to report that IQ scores have been steadily improving, surely our immersion in popular culture has been responsible, no? It's just not right to claim we've been dumbed down.

I've spent some time reporting on a book I give only two stars. I do so because he ignores glaring problems with immersion in entertainment that dwarf the supposed mental improvement that comes from media stimulation.

If you do anything other than stare at a wall, you are going to get better at it and the parts of your brain involved with what you do will develop. Whether this is meaningful and can be transferred to other things you do is open to question. I'm sure you've seen the drawings of the brain that show the size of the different parts in proportion to the work they do. The tongue and lips get lots of territory because we use them so intensively. These days, the neural territory claimed by the thumb must be growing daily due to smartphone use!

I ride a bicycle, often after dark when I might just be out for a ride or possibly going for groceries. It's scary. Not because I'm afraid of the dark but because I pass house after house where there is a huge flat screen flashing pretty colors. I know that in front of all those screens are people, each possessing the most amazing mental organ known, passively watching what is presented to them, something which they have voluntarily turned on to the exclusion of all the other things they could be doing. House after house after house. Why not, aren't there hundreds of channels, DVD's, streaming services?

Steven Johnson tells us they are all improving their minds without thinking, I would say probably many of them are seeking not to think as they watch after a day's work. Surely they are thinking less than if they were working on a project in the basement. Thinking less than if they took a walk around the block, where they might meet a neighbor if TV news hadn't convinced everyone that sidewalks at night are dangerous. Thinking less than if they were conversing with each other about the need to do something about all the problems pressing in on us, instead of banishing thought watching the endless cornucopia of video that covers more and more of the wall as flat screens get bigger and bigger.

Religion may have been an opium of the people but it can't begin to compare with video. Many, way too many Americans are in dire straits, strung out on opioids, deep in debt, fearful of their fellow citizens, afraid of job loss or a medical bill. You'd think they might be out in the streets making a fuss for change, but each night it's back on the couch with remote in hand. That's a terrible misuse of the brain, choosing inaction when action is so needed. Joe Public has little but at least he can watch the rich, beautiful and famous in full color and accept what he is told that has no bearing on his neighborhood as "the news."

I play video games. They're fun. They may be building my hand-eye coordination and I am sure I am getting better with my Xbox controller. I travel in fantastic realms, the scenery is breathtaking in The Witcher 3 to the extent that I sometimes stop killing things and just enjoy looking around at beautiful fields of flowers waving in the virtual breeze backed by towering snow capped mountains (while the real world is imperiled). Dialog and characters really are getting more interesting. The magical power I have at my fingertips is AWESOME! But it's all make believe and I'm learning about pointless things. My intense curiosity won't settle for it. I want real world knowledge, I seek wisdom that can never be imparted by fantasies in which one can never die, one can never lose (just start again and again until you succeed or check the Internet) and where one can get bored, yes that terrible thing that once was always ready to strike but can now be kept forever at bay by endless distraction, endless amusement that requires zero mental investment, even if parts of the brain are stimulated.

Don't bother with this book. Instead, take up drawing, take up hiking, take up public speaking, teach yourself fully about just one single major issue that faces us so you can speak about it with knowledge rather than empty opinion. Entertainment is fine but it isn't life and it is a tremendous time killer with psychological research, viewer studies and high tech advances directed toward luring you in.

If you feel a bit guilty for indulging in all the things that are offered you at great reward to those offering it, you should. Be the fish that has misgivings about the bait. Hold the fabulous world of popular culture at a distance when it sits right in your living room, an insidious kaleidoscope, the opposite of a stimulant to the intellect, dangerous to your mind for offering vicarious action to passivity, something Steven Johnson all but brushes aside.
Profile Image for Jay Green.
Author 4 books237 followers
May 20, 2016
Much of what I love about this book is its polemicising effect on readers that helps me to distinguish the culture snobs from the rest of us - particularly helpful because culture snobs tend to be snobs not just culturally but also socially. There isn't much new in Johnson's work that can't be found in Flynn's examination of the rise in IQ and various structuralist literary and cultural analyses, but it's nice to see the argument being made outside of sociology and cultural studies that the distinction between high and low culture is a socially constructed sham. You don't need to be a Bourdieuvian to recognise the way cultural choices are made by individuals as a way of distinguishing themselves from their peers rather than on the basis of intrinsic merits, and indeed, Johnson isn't anything close to a Bourdieuvian, but he does provide a mainstream version (I say that deliberately, rather than 'dumbed down') of an argument that is well supported in the academic literature.
Profile Image for Ed Wagemann.
Author 2 books67 followers
May 15, 2011
If everything bad is actually good for you, like the title of Steve Johnson’s study of pop culture suggests, then his book must be the best thing since penicillin. In attempting to make the argument that pop culture is actually making mankind smarter, Johnson is guilty of huge lapses in logic which stems from a very limited view of reality that pretty much totally misses the point on almost every level. Even the one tool of pop culture that actually is improving mankind, that being the internet (since the internet has obviously evolved into one of the most important sources of information and communication in modernized civilization), Johnson’s off-base argument is that the Internet’s value comes from its ability to allow fans of pop TV shows to gossip about the fictional characters and plots in their favorite the shows. What he doesn’t explain—probably since it isn’t true—is how gossiping on a Desperate Housewives website better is for you than actually talking to a live person about real things happening in your real life.
Throughout his book Johnson continues to grasp for straws as he reaches one bizarre, unscientific conclusion after another in his attempts to legitimize all the time he has wasted in his life watching sitcom/melodrama TV and playing fantasy games on the computer. One such bizarre conclusion Johnson reaches is that “most” video games do to the “reward” circuitry of the brain what the game Tetris does to one’s visual circuitry. Never mind that he can’t cite any scientific proof for this, most likely since this claim is in fact a totally unfounded conclusion. Johnson rationalizes that the time, energy and money he has wasted during his life on playing video games is making him more evolved by arguing that millions of other people have wasted just as much of their time on these same video games. So it must be good for you right? That’s the kind of pedestrian logic that Johnson’s book is littered with. This is bad stuff, but Johnson compounds his illogical conclusions with a bad habit of making annoyingly off-base generalizations. He says things like people don’t “explore” movies or music in anything but the most figurative way. That’s obviously false. Even the village idiot knows that movies and music have many layers (in which the more you learn about, the better you can experience them in various ways).
So less than 60 pages into his book it became obvious that Johnson is an ignamaroon. His main problem is that his view of the world is limited strictly to the world of pop culture. He seems to think the entire world watches as much TV as he does, plays as many video games as he does, and spends all the rest of their time sitting in front of a computer screen gossiping with others about the latest Survivor episode. And although there are certainly millions of Americans that do spend hours in their parents basement hypnotized by the intricacies of fantasy video game worlds, and millions who have closer relationships to fictional TV characters than they do with real humans, Johnson offers no statistics as to how many or to what extent, and he certainly doesn’t explain how all of this is bettering mankind. He just assumes that everybody is like him, totally ignoring (or perhaps he doesn’t realize the fact) that many people simply use video games, TV and movies as diversions from their daily lives for a few hours of entertainment here and there, not as the sole tool for giving their life a purpose.
I guess what I found most offensive about Johnson’s book was his attempt to promote being obsessed with pop culture as being for the betterment of mankind. To me there is no benefit to society in having a worldview that is limited in scope to nothing but pop culture. In fact it makes me wonder how those who are seeing the world from such a limited view are interacting with the real world and affecting it at all. From reading Johnson’s book it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Johnson (and those others with the limited perspective of a pop culture junky) would rather have someone who was a champion player at Sims 2000 become mayor of his city over someone with real world city council experience who has dealt with the complexities of community politics. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they would rather have a champion Nintendo player managing their favorite baseball team over someone who was an actual former big leaguer. And who, I wonder would they want as the top policy makers of America’s Department of Defense, a hotshot whiz at Dungeon and Dragons and Command and Conquer or someone who had military experience in real world conflicts? The point I’m trying to make here is that while the couch potatoes that make up the population in Johnson’s world are doing amazing things on a video game or coming up with incredible insights to reality TV show strategies, it is the people who are actually living in the real world who are putting their stamp on reality. Obviously video games cause you to make decisions while playing, but so does taking a walk, so does hiking or biking or rock climbing or going to a library or music store or a job interview. The difference of course is that in real life your decisions have real life consequences, consequences that actually matter. In video games they don’t. In video games you can start over, you can use ‘cheats’, you can be killed and come back to life.
Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact he compares playing video games to studying Algebra. And although mastering algebra may not give the average person skills that they use every single day in real life, Johnson doesn’t site even one skill that is learned from playing a video game that is going to help the average person in real life. Johnson’s main argument is that video games cause the player to ‘probe’ and ‘telescope’ yet he doesn’t explain how these two skills have any relation to real life. Without any scientific research on the subject, it seems pretty obvious that skills you learn playing a video game are not likely going to be skills that will help you in real life, and one reason for that is that in video games the possibilities of what you can do are all limited to the confines of the game. In real life hobbies like biking or taking roadtrips, even collecting baseball cards, you can make up any rules and values you want. You determine the goals instead of having some fabricated limitations assigned to your ‘character’.
I do however concede that the Internet is a good tool for mankind, although Johnson’s case for it is way off base. I also see how video games can be of some minimal benefit, beyond just entertainment. But by far the weakest of Johnson’s many weak arguments is that pop culture is making mankind smarter because TV show narratives have become more complex and that their characters have become more complex. That’s probably true if you are comparing them to TV characters of 30 years ago, then yes, perhaps they are more complex. But compared to real people, or even compared to literary characters, or film characters then no, they are not more complex. In fact most of what I’ve seen on TV is rehashed and repackaged bits, plots and characters from older foreign films, off-Broadway theatre and radio programs of yesteryear. Again Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact at one point in his book Johnson goes on and on for several pages, making a total fool of himself by blubbering on about what a cutting edge and original technique is employed in Sienfeld by something that is nothing more than a simple running gag. In this case the running gag is that the character George Costanza uses a false name (Art Van Delay) to try to impress people. Even though similar running gags go back to the beginnings of performance, Johnson treats it as if it’s the most original and creative thing since sliced bread. Yet he offers no explanation at how this running gag is any more creative than Jack Benny’s ‘tightwad’ jokes or Mr. Ropers ‘turn to the camera and grin’ bit that was worked into several Three’s Company episodes.
Still, this doesn’t prevent Johnson from concluding that these more complex TV characters and narratives are turning all of mankind into this super insightful observer that can read emotions, intentions and motives better than someone who doesn’t watch TV shows. And the ridiculous thing about Johnson’s limited thinking is that if people really are learning their life lessons from so-called “complex” TV characters and content, and if they are really operating under the false notion that being an expert on what strategies Reality show characters should use, or what plot twist the Sopranos is going to take, makes them an expert on real life issues, then they are going to make some terrible decisions in real life. I’m talking “voting for George W. Bush” caliber terrible decisions.
Overall, due to the carelessness of thought and the over rationalization and leaps in logic Johnson makes in nearly every one of his arguments, it’s becomes way too easy to dismiss his entire book as nonsense. I recommend you ignore this book completely.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,041 followers
February 15, 2016
Sept 2010 update below.

Excellent book. Not a convincing argument, but a very refreshing and provocative contrarian perspective.

Johnson provides evidence that much of our mass entertainment, even the stuff we often shudder at, is gradually pushing the IQs of its consumers steadily up. He focuses our attention on aspects of television -- including reality TV!, video games, and much else in this effort.

Two things are crucial to note, though.

First, Johnson’s title and subtitle (”How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter”) are deeply ambiguous, since ”Smarter” and ”Good for You” are extremely subjective concepts. He really shouldn’t have used such loaded terms, and doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to explain and narrow his objective. His text only does an excellent job at arguing that many aspects of modern culture are making humans better at solving certain kinds of puzzles, and better at thinking about complex situations.

He provides fairly persuasive evidence that consumers of mass media can now understand and enjoy entertainment that would be bewilderingly too complex for the masses just a few decades ago. He provides broad evidence for this, but most convincingly in television and video games. The reason behind this is quite astonishing: in order to keep voracious audiences coming back for more, producers have to ”keep it fresh”, adding something interesting and new to the mix with each iteration. One way of doing that is to tease the brain with subtlety and complexity, and thus we are in effect trained over the decades in understanding and even enjoying this complexity. [The quest for novelty has also long been seen as a reason for the inexorable spread of sexuality and violence in media, although I don’t recall Johnson exploring this sidebar.:]

But Johnson doesn’t really argue that this makes anyone more moral, or happier, or that it makes society better, or even that a complex show is in any other sense qualitatively better than a simpler show.

This is related to the second point: Johnson’s argument should be taken as descriptive, not prescriptive. This is something that many readers seem to have problems with: many folks automatically assume that anything an author spends a great deal of time and effort elaborating is something that author must approve of. But often -- and I believe this book is a good example -- the intent instead is to explore a fascinating topic and to illuminate it to a broader audience for pondering.

Johnson doesn’t do a very good job at explaining this, which is a shame. We spend so much time agreeing with ourselves that mass entertainment is corrosive that the contrarian point of view becomes almost shameful. And even after reading this book, it is easy to still conclude that popular media is destructive, but due to the morality of its content. It is possible that McLuhan was wrong, or at least that the story is more complicated than we’d previously believed.

And frankly, that’s good. Even though I haven’t watched more than an hour or so of television per year for about a decade now, I do appreciate the increasing complexity of stories offered up in Western culture. And the story of technology’s impact on humanity is, itself, a tale that becomes more delightfully engrossing as it becomes more curious and twisted.

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The Economist has an article and opinion piece that provide yet more evidence of this book’s message. Specifically, that playing fast-action video games helps with decision making. See the article The skills from zapping ’em and the commentary by their “Babbage” correspondent Why World of Warcraft is good for you .
Profile Image for Elise.
26 reviews
July 29, 2007
What's nice about Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You is that you can finish it in several short sittings. Three cheers for that. The book is quick and succinct, an easy but thoughtful and though-provoking read.

Johnson argues that over the last three decades, popular culture has become more complex, sophisticated and challenging, in spite of everybody's eagerness to dub it "lowbrow fluff." That is, for all the crap they get, programs on "the idiot box" and "those damn video games" are actually more of a brain workout than most critics are willing to give them credit for...

I like some of his arguments (which are too in-depth and numerous to summarize here), although there are times when the logic gets a bit patchy and I just don't buy it. That said, I can't wait to tell Mom and Dad that all those years of sitting at the computer, eyes glazed, playing Commander Keen Episode IV: Aliens Ate My Babysitter would actually improve my set of problem-solving skills and exercise areas of my brain I didn't even know I had.

Time to go see what's on TV.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,451 reviews474 followers
October 7, 2010

(you can hear the Bill & Ted in my voice, right?)

Johnson's idea is that the entertainment that everyone else says is bad for you really isn't, it's really good for you. Because IQs are steadily rising over time. It must be crappy TV and video games.

Yeah, that's pretty much the quality of the logic. me, I'm inclined to believe that the entertainment some says is bad for you isn't any worse for you than anything else, and neither highbrow art (Mozart for brilliant babies?) nor lowbrow video games is inherently superior. But that's just me and my unwillingness to believe that correlation equals causation.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,384 followers
May 28, 2016
Um livro que realmente gostei. Uma boa defesa de como a cultura em geral (séries, jogos, filmes, quadrinhos, etc) está ficando mais complexa. E como ainda nos prendemos em achar que qualquer atividade de lazer que não for a leitura fará mal para as crianças. O autor ainda toma o cuidado de deixar claro que nem tudo contribui para a cognição e cobre o outro lado, atividades que vão pelo menor denominador comum e mediocridade. Excelente para quem frequenta novas mídias e consome entretenimento (todo mundo).
Profile Image for Amanda.
342 reviews5 followers
December 10, 2014
This book would have been 4 stars as it is really interesting and puts science behind theories that I've held for a while (i.e. that video games are good for your brain), but gets downgraded to 3 stars for poor editing, being repetitive, not having enough science, and for being dated. Those last two aren't really the book's fault though, I don't think at the time, they were looking into the sorts of claims that the author makes.

My favorite passage is one where he describes a theoretical land where video games were invented before books, and the outcry that would arise if books became popular.
Books are tragically isolating. While games have for may years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers... books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children.... [These books] risk instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. the book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead."

Since reading this, I took back up playing the last Zelda, because, you know, it's good for my brain.
Profile Image for Lyn.
65 reviews6 followers
July 28, 2008
Okay, my book club read this several months ago, but I didn't read it (couldn't get my hands on a copy before book club). The author had me convinced of his arguments until the last 15-20 pages. I can "buy" that pop culture has gotten more complex... I can "buy" that the average person today is smarter than the average person 100 years ago. What I can't buy is that content doesn't matter. You can throw statistics at me all day long, but I just don't believe that our sense of values and ethics are not influenced by the media that we take in. I also think that he glosses over the addictive nature of the types of media he is arguing for... yes, he says that it is "part" of the whole diet, BUT, I think he significantly undersells how much of the media we take in.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Lucas.
214 reviews31 followers
August 27, 2019
This book is split into two parts with two distinct but related theses:

1. Pop culture is getting more complex
2. IQ has been trending upwards because of this

He defends (1) by comparing television, film and video games to their mid-20th century counterparts. Depending on what particular time slice he chooses there is a question of whether these things are truly popular or mass culture; television and film are more likely to be mass culture regardless of time whereas video games mostly picked up at the turn of the century which is far too close to publication date to produce any meaningful results.

There are also concerns of his examples having been cherrypicked - he uses The West Wing and Sopranos as his contemporary examples which, at least in 2019, are not at all indicative of popular culture. I know of only one person who has watched The West Wing (though religiously) and the same for the Sopranos. Shows like The Bachelor(ette) and relatively uncomplex shows seem to dominate the zeitgeist now - complex and non-linear shows such as Sopranos, The Wire, etc. are more of cult classics than pop culture. Even shows that were at one point complex and great - Game of Thrones - when entering into the popular culture rapidly decrease in quality (as seen in the latter two seasons, although this can also be attributed to the inept writers who no longer had source material to simply adapt the show from). Even in the age of streaming, relatively uncomplex shows like The Office, Friends, Trailer Park Boys and Family Guy (all categorized as 'Trending' on Netflix) are immensely popular when compared to more complex shows such as Dark and Black Mirror. Maybe this does nothing to undermine the thesis - the point is rather modest, that pop culture now, compared to pop culture formerly is more complex. This says nothing of the complexity of pop culture compared to its alternatives currently. Is Trailer Park Boys more complex than any show, though? (The same largely goes for film - most pop culture films currently are superhero films or part of a series. While I am a fan of the MCU, I would not call them complex [for the most part], especially if Johnson wants to claim than David Lynch and Tarantino's films were pop culture in the 2000's.)

Also ignored (seemingly going right under his nose) is that much of popular culture is not necessarily something actively taken in - more often than not it is done passively. Sure, it is possible to watch television or play video games actively but more often than not it is passive. Television is often barely paid attention to - it often serves just as background noise or even if at the forefront, is not viewed as analytically as necessary to get the most out of the intricacies of shows. Video games, especially at the highest level are essentially mindless - speedrunners have reduced games to muscle memory and use next to no active brainpower when playing, the most popular video games are often 'grinders' i.e. requiring long times to achieve some reward which results in the user essentially turning into an automaton as they perform the same mundane task over and over until they eventually reach some reward (and then they repeat the same process).

The second thesis, that IQ is trending upwards because of it, surely correlates if the data is not false, but the case for causation is pretty weak. Johnson thinks that education hasn't improved and so the best explanation is pop culture complexification. However, education probably has improved - knowledge of metacognition and active learning are fairly recent developments and are very beneficial to learning. Teaching methods exist in a sort of reflective equilibrium so even if test scores remain static over time (as difficulty probably varies), general intelligence probably increases as educators realize what does and does not work.

Aside from this, IQ tests just generally suck. As he notes, they test only specific forms of intelligence and it just so happens that what he is concerned with are these specific forms. Sure, if we want to only examine spatial reasoning then a population playing more video games that require spatial reasoning may explain these increases. However, there appears no good reason to prefer spatial reasoning or other forms supported by his thesis to those that are neglected by IQ tests and not supported by his pop culture thesis.

Lastly, he notes that he thinks video games and television ought to be supplements in one's mental diet, not the entire meal. This ignores that video games and television are often created to be as addictive as possible in order to take as much of the mental diet as possible. After all, in a profit-driven capitalist society, devoted consumers brings about more profit than non-devoted consumers. If pop culture was good for us, it would not cause us to neglect the other important parts of our mental diets. Reading is dramatically more popular in the 65+ crowd (who just happen to also be the least technological), which supports the idea that technology crowds out reading. There is a vast amount of literature on how modern tech is addicting and crowds out other habits and the average user's screen time is out of control which is utterly ignored by Johnson. If we caveat every bad things as Good In Moderation and ignore the difficulties surrounding putting this into practice, we may find ourselves soon suggesting cocaine to combat depressive episodes. Things are not separable from their baggage and Johnson commits a grave sin by suggesting that we can do so with pop culture.
Profile Image for kiki Tobor.
28 reviews5 followers
August 24, 2021
Who the fuck let this get through publishing?? Who said yes to this???
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,650 followers
July 1, 2009
I think if the author would have stuck to his narrow thesis, this book could have been a tight and convincing argument, but he unjustifiably broadens it and weakens his argument. The narrow thesis, "the sleeper curve" argues that popular culture has gotten slowly smarter. TV shows give us less clues, demand more of our attention, and ask us to remember things from prior episodes, seasons, and even to incorporate popular events. Video games have become much more complex and demanding and engage the player in many long-range and short-range tasks that require planning, foresight and disciplined focus. All of this is fine and it actually gave reason to why I often prefer modern "classics" to "cannonized" classics: cultural IQ has slowly increased and writers today are smarter and thus their texts are much more nuances and complex and demand much more from the reader without offering clues that insult the intelligence. I have often been put off by an older classic because of obvious plot lines or cliches without realizing that those are clues that the author was throwing out and we, the modern readers, no longer need them.

Where the author goes wrong is in suggesting that some of these forms of entertainment can be compared to or are even better than reading (he suggests this and then backs away from fully saying it) or other forms of engagement that conventional wisdom says are better for you. I can't be convinced of that. While playing video games and watching TV now will make you smarter than those activities did 30 years ago, they still do not compare to engaging in complex social experiences (playing with friends), free play in nature (READ: Last Child in the Woods for this argument), or reading.

In addition, the author spends less than two pages dealing with the criticism that morals have anything to do with it. If you ignore this, the book is essentially beating a straw man. Not many people criticize pop culture because they say it has gotten dumber, but more violent and more sexually explicit or morally ambiguous. And the author concedes this, but says that it is irrelevant. Kids are smarter today and they will learn their morals from home anyway so no need to worry that they are seeing, participating, and becoming desensitized to dramatically more sex and violence. He even notes in a parenthetical towards the end of the book that perhaps this involvement in violence in the visual world has served as an outlet for violence, causing decreased violence in real life. What I know about vice and addiction, however, makes me dismiss this unsupported argument as ridiculous (at best).

It is unclear whether smartness or the ability to adapt to new media and manage complex situations (all of which has been gained in the last 10 years by youth engaged in popular culture) will result in societal gains or whether it will just present itself in higher IQ results will soon be seen. I am just not sure that what is lost when you spend time in a visually distorted world as opposed to the real one is less than what is gained.

I am no puritan, however, and I really did appreciate the (narrow) thesis. I like the idea of lean-forward entertainment as opposed to the lean-back entertainment of the past. When I watch LOST, I often have to wait until the commercial break to breath or loosen the tension in my shoulders. I often spend time reading reviews online afterwards trying to decipher all the clues. I appreciate that level of entertainment and I appreciate that the market rewards that now. Still, I am not sure I am comfortable with my children watching "complex" cartoons as opposed to reading any kind of book
Profile Image for Shane Moore.
642 reviews28 followers
January 27, 2015
Before I read this book, I believed modern entertainment was progressively getting dumber, catering more and more to the lowest common denominator. Now, I have been convinced otherwise. Even the worst dreck of modern TV is in many ways more complex and intellectually demanding than comparable programs from earlier times.

Does this mean books will soon go extinct, to be replaced by superior modern media?

Mr. Johnson writes, "No cultural form in history has rivaled the novel���s capacity to re-create the mental landscape of another consciousness, to project you into the first person experience of other human beings. Movies and theater can make you feel as though you���re part of the action, but the novel gives you an inner vista that is unparalleled: you are granted access not just to the events of another human���s life, but to the precise way those events settle in his or her consciousness."

In this statement he sums up precisely what I love about fiction. Authors distill the best parts of their imagination and then translate that distillate into words. Impossibly, I inhabit and assimilate their imagined lives.

Other people have written about the benefits of literacy, social interaction, exercise, and sports. Maybe I'm too fond of contrarianism, but I loved reading arguments for the benefits of junk entertainment.
Profile Image for Andrew Miller.
27 reviews2 followers
October 9, 2013
The book has a simple and counterintuitive message: playing video games makes you smarter.

Of course I'm going to like a book like this! If only I can somehow convince my wife that the hundreds of hours "wasted" on video games is actually time spent making me a better person. Johnson's book argues that video games instill within players the skills required to think critically and analyze complex relationships. For example, SimCity teaches players the delicate balance of taxes, industry, and government to create an urban utopia, rather than wasting the player's time. While the media is often critical of games as the dumbing down of society, these games have rather improved society.

My only reservation with his argument is with games such as The Sims or Second Life. While these games create rituals and culture, they do create a community that lacks, in the words of Sherry Turkle, real consequences. A child can learn social skills and develop connections, but in the world of video games these connections are increasingly isolating. Therefore, we need to be cautious that these communities do not withdraw us from the valuable relationships we need.
Profile Image for Samuel .
6 reviews
June 1, 2015
Upon beginning reading this book, I just picked it up and started reading, it had a cool lookin' cover so I decided why not? After getting through the prologue and all of the other opening "junk", I found myself oddly compelled to learn more because my views were not only being challenged, but proved wrong, and in just a few (rather long but still few) sentences! So I naturally wanted to read more to find out why I could hold to my opinion, but not because I was interested in the book, no, the published author had to be wrong. As I read more of the book I quickly found out that it was indeed true, my thinking wasn't old and outdated, but rather skewed in its perception. Steven Johnson persuades effectively what he set out to do, popular culture ain't so bad.
Profile Image for Ghoti.
61 reviews
January 15, 2016
This book was preaching to the converted and it still managed to annoy me with its inaccuracies.

However, one thing I did get from it was a potential reason why I like tabletop games but mostly don't get on well with computer games. It describes the joy of computer games as largely being rules you have to figure out, and what I love about tabletop games is that there are clearly defined rules to work within. That matches my experience of frustration and boredom, so I'm going to ponder that some more.

I wouldn't recommend the book though.
Profile Image for Hirondelle.
953 reviews207 followers
August 2, 2010
2.5 stars for sure - interesting ideas (not original ideas) but a bit shallow, and I got to disagree with a few of his conclusions.
Profile Image for Michael.
147 reviews7 followers
May 16, 2023
It is essentially a persuasive argument that the author is making, that even our simplest diversions are more complex than ever and that is training our brains in ways that we might not consciously perceive. How well the argument works for you depends on your experience.

For me, the argument seems sound. When I think about D&D, something derided as Dumb and Dumber by some parents, I can see his point. I learned a lot about math just playing the game, especially probability. I certainly didn't learn about bell curves in school. It instilled an interest in history to the point that I was at one time researching how ancient trade route effected the growth of cities just so I could better plan how my world was built. Not for a class, but for fun.

His work argues that this is true even in other areas. This culture is getting smarter because we demand that it do so by our consumption. Another example is Legend of Zelda, something I've been studying lately. I never played a Zelda game until recently but since I became interested I've delved into the surprisingly complex lore and time line. I've spent more time reading than playing (so far).
So is Zelda a pointless diversion for kids that represents the latest dumbing down of entertainment, chasing animated pixels around a video screen? No, he would argue not. Sure, it could be just a fun game for many, but considering the non chronological order the stories are told in, the multiple and alternate timelines and the concept of fate versus freedom it deals with some heady stuff. This doesn't even consider the memory and eye-hand coordination training that you get.

That should give you an idea of what the book is like, but it deals with broader areas of culture. In some ways, it's appeal is the comfort it gives to those of us who dive deep down a rabbit hole of obsession. The entertainment isn't just complex, but the collateral learning that you engage in is as well.

So I read through this again today and I'll add this caveat. It was published in 2005 so while I think it's premise is sound it's examples could use some updating.
Profile Image for Elly.
144 reviews21 followers
June 9, 2017
Somewhere between 2 and 3 stars. Obviously at this point, this book is quite outdated (part of the issue with my promise to read books on the first couple of pages of my "to read" list...). The central premise is that media has become more complex (be it the thought process necessary to beat a video game or character/plot depth knowledge necessary to "get" a show) and as a result, our cognitive processes are improving and we are becoming smarter. The problem is there is not much causal research in the book to back this up (which Johnson touches on very briefly in the afterward) and increases in IQ or cognitive development could be attributed to so many other things. So, do I believe media has gotten more complex? Absolutely. You don't need to look further than the fan analyses of Breaking Bad episodes or Netflix original programming or any number of other sources to see that, IMO (a bummer these things didn't exist when the book was written!). Are we smarter because of it? I mean, maybe? It's possible. If you're interested in culture and media studies, you will likely enjoy this book more than if you are say, a statistician or researcher.
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