Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Everything Bad is Good for You - Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson’s book “Everything Bad is Good for You” presents a unique hypothesis about media and popular culture. He argues that rather than culture being “dumbed down”, many media experiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated and therefore more cognitively challenging.
He presents a convincing argument that media forms such as video games and television have become more complex over that past two decades and that this has lead to audiences demanding more from media. This provides a fresh alternative to those who suggest our culture is in a downward spiral. He makes many insightful observations about the structures of games and television shows to suggest that they require a great deal of cognitive ability to be used and enjoyed.
Johnson argues that his method is more scientific than cultural, and follows theories puts forward by psychologists and mathematicians rather than sociologists. He is a technological determinist in the sense that he argues that more sophisticated media will produce more sophisticated users.
This is where his hypothesis becomes seriously problematic. For example, he completely ignores the role audience members play in the formation of meaning. There is no account of how different people will respond differently to the same media product. Therefore, there is no account of cultural studies or cultural theory (which Johnson believes is a strength) which leads to some serious flaws in logic.
For example, one of his conclusions is that we should encourage children and young adults to watch shows like “24” in preference to shows like “Law and Order” because the former has a more complex narrative structure and will therefore be more cognitively stimulating. Apart from completely ignoring the sophistication of narrative development in L&O, such a conclusion reveals little sense of how people might actually use each of these shows in a multiplicity of ways, involving a myriad of levels and variations of cognitive involvement. This is a high / low culture argument within popular culture, not dissimilar to the discrimination model proposed by Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel in “The Popular Arts” - a text long since debunked on a theoretical level (most comprehensively by Hall himself).
The book is provocative, and a welcome change from the media bashing of many writers on popular culture, media and young people. It is just a pity Johnson doesn’t take his own advice and draw on other perspectives more thoroughly, particularly some sociology and cultural studies. Johnson accuses cultural theorists of ignoring the hard sciences in relation to media analysis. Ironically, in ignoring the diversity of audience responses to popular culture, Johnson misses an opportunity to add more depth to his argument.