Pop culture is "intellectually demanding", or it enhances "our cognitive faculties", or it poses "cognitive challenges", or it has "intellectual benefits".
What Zelda did
But cognition and intellect are not the same thing. A baseball player or cricketer has a highly specialised cognitive mastery in judging the flight of a ball through the air, but that does not make him necessarily an intellectual powerhouse.
Conversely, an intellectual giant might be cognitively challenged in various fields, such as remembering where he put his keys. The book affects an air of empirical, science-based analysis, but unfortunately Johnson wants it on the cheap. Early on, he grandiosely announces that he will do what most cultural critics fail to do: engage with the findings of neuroscience. What he actually then does is to mumble something about the brain's dopamine system and to guess that videogames might be good at engaging it.
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He saves his grand proof, meanwhile, for the second half of the book, which goes like this: IQ scores have risen steadily over the last few decades in the industrialised west, so this must be thanks to the cerebral challenges posed by pop culture. Really, must it?
You could make an equally plausible case that since banana consumption has risen massively in the west over the same period, it must be the nutritional benefits of bananas, so rich in potassium and other brain-enhancing minerals, that are responsible for a rise in general intelligence. That is, if rising IQ scores are actually evidence for a rise in intelligence, an idea that is highly controversial.
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What is undeniable is that watching complicated TV shows makes you better at watching more complicated TV shows; and playing video games makes you better at playing more video games. But Johnson wants more: he wants these skills to be, as psychologists would say, transferable. One recent study Johnson triumphantly cites shows that regular video-gamers were better at doing "a series of quick visual recognition tests, picking out the color of a letter or counting the number of objects on a screen".
In other words, regular video-gamers were better at performing video game-style tests.
This is not a very surprising result. So much for the pseudo-science. The weirdest aspect of the book is that it defends popular culture while holding an attitude of contempt for it. In other words, he is a snob: yes, this stuff is crap, but look, it's useful crap! Embarrassed by the princesses and dungeons of the videogame Zelda, for instance, he pleads that it is a "false premise" that "the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent".
Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
Of course, we know that "content" consists of more than "themes and characters", but Johnson is hobbled by an exclusively literary idea of what content might be. He admits that "Most of the time, when you're hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing", but he never for a moment considers the visual aesthetics of games - how they imagine and construct the next thing for you to see - and cannot allow this to be part of the "content" which he suggests we ignore.
He does not seem to notice, moreover, that this wilful blindness is inconsistent with the fact that if video games make us better at anything, it is precisely at visual tasks. Meanwhile, I defer to no man in my admiration of the television series 24, but again Johnson begs us to forget the "content" and admire instead the complexity of the "social network" that populates the fiction. He even draws a cute little diagram with lines representing the relationships between characters.
Is this really what makes 24 so good? It's about relationships. Johnson has put forth a delightful argument that the complexity and richness of modern video games, television shows, and movies require so much active participation from players and viewers, so much active engagement and problem solving, that rather than being the mindless, mind-numbing time-wasters of popular criticism, these activities strengthen problem-solving and reasoning abilities. To this end, he launches a vigorous defense, complete with clever charts that demonstrate the complexity of today's games and shows.
Alas, every beginning psychology student knows why we require unbiased, blind judges to assess such issues as complexity, why we require data rather than clever argumentation.
How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
Johnson created his own analyses, which makes them susceptible to all sorts of biases, both conscious and unconscious. Moreover, he deliberately focuses upon the complexity of the game and show structure, not the content, and he argues that content doesn't matter.
Even if his hypotheses are correct, there is no evidence — nor does Johnson pretend there is — that the enhanced problem-solving skills come along with advanced understanding of how to create a logical argument, how to reason from evidence, and how to reach sustainable, justifiable conclusions. So, I have to conclude that the book presents a fascinating argument, one worthy of deep consideration.
But I don't believe the arguments, not yet anyway.
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Mind you, he might be correct: it's simply that the evidence presented in the book is not sufficient to know.
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