Thursday, April 3, 2008

Review of Everything Bad Is Good For You - Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1 of this review, there is much in Steven Johnson’s book that deserves consideration as we think about the potential and dangers of modern entertainment. Before getting there, however, we must first step back and examine the book’s presuppositions: Everything Bad is Good For You, regrettably, suffers from a kind of schizophrenia of purpose that deeply undermines its force.

As the provocative title implies, Johnson wants to be iconoclastic, but in the end he’s too smart for his own good. His book brims over with qualifiers and his conspicuous back-peddling strongly suggests that the thesis has been hyped to increase sales (a tactic which worked, by the way). Everything Bad is Good For You quickly becomes something like: Pop Culture Is Smarter Than It Used to Be – Though Maybe It Still Can’t Compare to High Art – and Can Be Part (But Only One Part) of a Healthy Media Diet. The latter statement is certainly closer to the truth, even if it makes for a lousy title. But in shifting towards this more nuanced stance, his point is nearly reduced to an empty shell aimed at a straw man. There is much worth pondering here, but it’s up to the reader to sort it out of the rubble.

The problem, it seems, is Johnson’s willingness to emphasize the positives while downplaying or ignoring the negative aspects of these “distractions.” For instance, you will search in vain for a discussion of the close connection between infant TV viewing and attention deficit disorder. Similarly, Neil Postman’s point that our overly visual culture has diminished our tolerance for sustained public discourse is all but dismissed as irrelevant (I wonder if Johnson learned his lesson promoting the book on various talk shows?). He elects to focus on how TV lets us see our politicians in more candid settings – providing “valuable” insight into their integrity – while completely ignoring the medium’s far broader implications on the political process.

But television's predisposition to replace substance with image must not be ignored: It’s no accident that flashy crime dramas like CSI – with their high tech gadgetry, attractive actors and tidy conclusions – far outperform true crime documentaries. Real life can’t live up to fiction in any form, but no previous medium provides a more convincing illusion that its truncated worldview is actually educational.

Finally, by focusing on structure rather than content, Johnson misses a great deal of what is most important in determining the potential benefits and dangers of these media. For instance, it’s hard to believe that anyone would try to judge the “cognitive value” of 24 based solely on the number of plotlines and significant relationships it juggles – yet this is precisely what Johnson does! Apparently, he hasn't considered that by this standard daytime soap operas would be the smartest thing on television. And when he starts praising Reality TV because it can teach “social IQ,” I’m tempted to respond: Sure, and you can learn risk-assessment betting on cock fights....

Despite all of this, however, Johnson is right to criticize those who appeal to poor content in dismissing television and gaming as media. Not all television, movies or games are mindless – far from it – and just because some popular choices are immoral or worthless, does not prove these media are irredeemable. One need only mention The Da Vinci Code to realize the same criteria would also eliminate reading as a waste of time. Indeed, doesn’t even the Bible include a rather large amount of immoral behavior? Clearly there is more to the value of a medium than whether all of its content is “family friendly,” and Johnson is right to insist upon this. In Part 3, then, we will consider the more positive aspects of his argument.

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