In Part 2, I noted a few important omissions from Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You, challenging especially his emphasis on structure over content. Yet to point out the importance of content is not to dismiss his argument as worthless (nor pop culture itself). Indeed, whether high-brow or low, written, filmed or sung, art doesn’t have to debase and distort, it can also uplift and illuminate, and Johnson is right that pop culture's dangers and drawbacks are too often wielded as a club to beat back any serious consideration of its benefits. To that end, he has identified some encouraging developments.
First, we need to put aside some dearly held illusions. Frequently, in judging popular media, we have an unrealistically romanticized view of the past. We remember the good ol’ days when television was innocent and uplifting, but forget that it was also simplistic and patronizing. We dream of the glory days before television, “when kids used their imaginations,” but fail to consider that they spent more time playing Kick the Can than reading Shakespeare. Compared to that, your typical ten-year-old computer wiz doesn’t seem so brain-dead after all.
Truly, Johnson has identified an important trend toward greater media complexity. Neil Postman did not anticipate this development, because it’s being driven primarily by the rise of newer “technologies of convenience,” from VHS to TiVo. The many ways these have pushed media producers away from the “Least Objectionable Programming” model of yesteryear, toward a “Most Repeatable Programming” model that rewards deeper concentration and long-term commitment, has not always been recognized by otherwise insightful cultural analysts.
When Postman was writing in 1985, television was essentially a “present tense medium,” and networks rightly feared the slightest confusion or offense might drive away their audience. In contrast, many of today’s popular programs--from 24 to LOST and Battlestar Galactica--absolutely depend on challenging their audiences to return again and again. Similarly, the most significant but often-overlooked feature of many recent video games is not the thumb exercise they provide, but how much intellectual work they demand. Anyone who has ever seriously attempted to succeed at SimCity or even Grand Theft Auto knows how blisteringly, frustratingly hard it is. Despite appearances, many of today’s most popular entertainments demand a remarkable degree of patient endurance, conscious interaction and long-term commitment.
Moreover, I wonder if simply restricting our indulgence in pop culture to rare and superficial engagement actually risks backing us into the very dangers we are trying to avoid. If the main thing making pop culture smarter is that producers can now expect us to pay better and longer attention (as Johnson helpfully notes: the separation between set-up and punch line on shows like Seinfeld can sometimes be measured in years rather than seconds), might it be that any proper response to modern society will have to leave room for the occasional obsession? Pop culture is here to stay, and Johnson is right that: “Out of obsession comes expertise, a confidence in your own powers of analysis – a sense that if you stick with the system long enough, you’ll truly figure out how it works.” (pg. 194) While learning the minutiae of Seinfeld lore might seem a waste of time, the skills necessary to discover such trivia probably do have wider applicability than is usually assumed.
If nothing else, the days of treating modern entertainment as a kind of degenerate second-best to the pristine realm of text should finally be put aside. There are clear and important differences between reading and gaming and television viewing, and the kinds of society they foster, but not all differences are bad. Writing is one art, not the only one. Truly, the “boob tube” is no substitute for literature, but it might just be that even great books are no substitute for good popular entertainment?