Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.
As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.
Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).
As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.
All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”
How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.
So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.
All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.
Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.