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The Big Answer


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Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter

a book by Steven Johnson

(our site's book review)

Pop Culture Does—or Doesn't—Make Us Smarter

This tome wants us to forget everything you’ve ever read about the age of dumbed-down, instant-gratification culture. In this provocative, unfailingly intelligent, thoroughly researched, and surprisingly convincing big idea book, Steven Johnson draws from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and media theory to argue that the pop culture we soak in every day—from Lord of the Rings to Grand Theft Auto to The Simpsons—has been growing more sophisticated with each passing year, and, far from rotting our brains, is actually posing new cognitive challenges that are actually making our minds measurably sharper. After reading Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, you will never regard the glow of the video game or television screen the same way again. If you buy his thesis.

Johnson says the pop culture we soak in every day is not frying our brains, but making our minds measurably sharper
Johnson says the pop culture we soak in every day is not frying our brains, but making our minds measurably sharper

Pop Culture Entertainment Is Better Than It Used to Be

"The author Steven Johnson argues that even as our culture seems to get dumber, Americans are getting smarter. IQ scores have been rising for generations, even though the last few generations have burned out their eyeballs watching television, playing video games and now surfing the Web. . . . [says Johnson] you have to remember how bad the TV was. Everybody points to, you know, `Oh, I remember "M*A*S*H" and "Mary Tyler Moore," but nobody ever really remembers, you know, "Dukes of Hazzard" or "CHiPs," you know." Johnson's point is that there are more good shows and more complex and challenging shows than there used to be, and people these days can handle not only this but multitasking. But the main point Johnson makes is that we are dealing with the complexity in the pop culture which is a different phenomena than multitasking, and that is the phenomena of actually focusing on multiple pieces of information and making them connect to each other in a meaningful way. (Source: 'Everything Bad Is Good for You', Steve Inskeep, host, NPR)

Johnson hits us with the questionable thesis that looking at crap is good for us because it's better crap than in the past and because of the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do
Johnson hits us with the questionable thesis that looking at crap is good for us because it's better crap than in the past and because of the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do

We're Unconvinced about Increased Sharpness from Staring at Crap or That We're Really Getting Smarter

Steven Poole is not convinced about this increased sharpness from staring at crap, nor that we are really getting smarter, nor that the tests that Johnson cites to demonstrate our increased smartness really show smartness. "First, he [Johnson] rails against the notion that our culture is dumbing down; he says that TV, films and video games are better than before. Second, he maintains that these things are actually making us more intelligent." His book makes the case that entertainment is better than it was decades ago, but his remaining points are unconvincing at best, and propaganda from the TV networks at worst.

Scientifically, saying A causes B arbitrarily is poppycock. Johnson should look in a science book and find out about theory, hypothesis, experiment, experimental group, control group, double blind testing, conclusion, etc.
Scientifically, saying A causes B arbitrarily is poppycock. Johnson should look in a science book and find out about theory, hypothesis, experiment, experimental group, control group, double blind testing, conclusion, etc.

"What might 'smarter' mean? Johnson never says, and systematically blurs crucial distinctions. Pop culture is 'intellectually demanding', or it enhances 'our cognitive faculties', or it poses 'cognitive challenges', or it has 'intellectual benefits'. 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."

Since IQ scores have risen steadily over the last few decades, he gives the credit to our pop culture intake. Poole doesn't buy this any more than we do. Maybe we're taking more vitamins now so that should get the credit. Maybe it's cosmic rays, more video game playing, or higher caloric intake. Scientifically, saying A causes B arbitrarily is poppycock. Johnson should look in a science book and find out about theory, hypothesis, experiment, experimental group, control group, double blind testing, conclusion, etc. Johnson is pushing pseudoscience—the type of stuff championed by Fox News (and indirectly by the Kochs and Big Oil), where you can learn that climate change is unrelated to human activity. (And they say it with a straight face!) (Source: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter, Steven Poole, The Guardian)

The author Steven Johnson argues that even as our culture seems to get dumber, Americans are getting smarter. IQ scores have been rising for generations; but Steven Poole is not convinced
The author Steven Johnson argues that even as our culture seems to get dumber, Americans are getting smarter. IQ scores have been rising for generations; but Steven Poole is not convinced

Johnson Seems to Be a Test Case for His Own Theory

The result of all entertainment/no inspiration is the unreality we find ourselves in, one where nobody can recall the last time they actually DID anything about the information they were given by the television (except buy stuff from ads). But Johnson seems to be a test case for his own theory. He has watched so much TV that the definition of science that he learned in grade school got covered up with the Fox News pseudoscience definition, and so he advocated a thesis of TV making us smart but proved the antithesis—it is making us dumb at worst—naive at best. As Poole says, 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. Instead of the pseudoscience of saying A causes B arbitrarily, he should have stuck to doing A makes you better at doing A and let it go at that before putting his foot in his mouth.

Instead of the pseudoscience of saying A causes B arbitrarily, Johnson should have stuck to doing A makes you better at doing A and let it go at that before putting his foot in his mouth
Instead of the pseudoscience of saying A causes B arbitrarily, Johnson should have stuck to doing A makes you better at doing A and let it go at that before putting his foot in his mouth


The public has been drinking the Kool-Aid so long it is sure the propaganda must be true. Most could barely conceive of the idea of how much they've been duped by a media that often spews fake news and never ever makes us smarter!
The public has been drinking the Kool-Aid so long it is sure the propaganda must be true. Most could barely conceive of the idea of how much they've been duped by a media that often spews fake news and never ever makes us smarter!

Johnson's Arguments Are Egregiously Unproven, by Him, by Scientists, or by Available Data

Johnson, in an engaging book, has put forth a great-sounding argument that the complexity and richness of modern video games, television shows, and movies require so much active participation from players and viewers, and also 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. However, his arguments are egregiously unproven, by him, by scientists, by available data, or even by Sana Claus. Hopefully scientists will do the research to determine the validity of his premature conclusions.

Many citizens get addicted to TVs and they end up as TV zombies
Many citizens get addicted to TVs and they end up as TV zombies

Other Books Are Not as Easily Convinced about the Benignness of TV, the Internet, and Entertainment in General as Johnson

There are many books that do not buy "TV makes us smart" nonsense:

In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, we find Neil Postman saying: " . . . television is bringing us speedily to the condition of the residents of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,' who were seduced into happy mindlessness." Millions of our citizens fit that description exactly, except for the happy part. Being an addict receiving a fix is relief but not joy, not happiness. Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. TV is the major instrument of our addiction, our obsession, our submission, in spite of Johnson's understandable desire for it to be otherwise.

In Media Sexploitation, according to the eloquent author Wilson Bryan Key: “We have, in a very real sense, sold out our individualism and freedom in return for a handful of baubles while we play-acted at being free individuals. . . . It is not difficult to conclude that man has done a superb job of conspiring unconsciously against finding out about himself.” In short, man doesn’t run his life; his life runs him. He’s not at cause; he’s at effect. He’s told what he needs and wants in a way that pushes his buttons that relate to struggles to be loved during childhood, insecurities and fears about his or her attractiveness, hygiene, independence, manhood or womanhood. He’s vulnerable to advertising because he’s insecure in his being, other-directed (see The Lonely Crowd), and easy to manipulate by yanking the chains of his insecurities. TV is the major instrument of our undoing, in spite of Johnson's understandable desire for it to be otherwise.

Neil Postman discusses the replacement of reading and thinking by entertainment, also saying we are settling for bread and circuses (diversion and distraction) rather than depth and meaning
Neil Postman discusses the replacement of reading and thinking by entertainment, also saying we are settling for bread and circuses (diversion and distraction) rather than depth and meaning

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences yet published, we see: “Is Google making us stupid?” When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

The Internet is not doing our brains any favors. Enough of it and the brain is neurologically compromised
The Internet is not doing our brains any favors. Enough of it and the brain is neurologically compromised

The Internet Doesn't Kill Concentration, Contemplation, and Reflection for ALL of Us

It should be obvious that those of us who really know how to use the Internet as a life enhancement do not limit our use of it to web surfing and scanning. We surf and scan to get the latest news and to enjoy a few occasional videos and to research various subjects like the latest ebooks, but once we finish, we concentrate deeply for hours, reading and writing. Far from losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection, we are enhancing these things by intensive thought and concentration. Like Carr and Postman, we are concerned that most people are apparently NOT adept at using the Internet as a life enhancement that leads to deep thought, creativity, reflection, etc.

The illiteracy rate in the U.S. is shameful—millions of citizens are illiterate
The illiteracy rate in the U.S. is shameful—millions of citizens are illiterate. According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read. Maybe Johnson's ideas of our citizens getting smarter are a bit biased.

The Internet harms our ability to empathize, concentrate, and retain new information. Carr's book explores the brain science behind it, giving examples throughout history about how humanity's actions and thoughts shifted with the invention of new media technologies. Hs book is a Silent Spring for the literary mind.

To Carr, we are just pitiable slaves to the computer who are constantly interrupted
To Carr, we are just pitiable slaves to the computer who are constantly interrupted

We Really Do Not Know If TV and Gaming Are Benign or Not

"The Xbox and 'The Apprentice,' [Johnson] contends, are pumping up their audiences' brains by accustoming them to ever-increasing levels of complexity, nuance and ambiguity that work on brain cells much as crunches do on the abdominal muscles. The depressing corollary to his thesis is that if a person isn't doing these exercises—perhaps because he's too busy raising children who engage in them compulsively—he's getting flabby from the neck up. . . . Considered purely on its own terms, Johnson's thesis holds up despite these quibbles. Our own internal computers are indeed speeding up, and part of the credit for this must surely go to the brute sophistication of our new entertainments, which tax the brain as "Kojak" never did. The old dogs may grump about cultural illiteracy and the erosion of traditional values, but the new dogs have talents, aptitudes and skills that we, as we drowse by the fire, can only dream of. Their sheer agility may not bring them wisdom, but our plodding didn't either, let's be fair." (Source: 'Everything Bad Is Good for You': The Couch Potato Path to a Higher I.Q., Walter Kirn, NY Times)

Couch potatoes often watch reality shows, sports, talent shows, contests, or soap operas, none of which challenge the mind—except to Johnson
Couch potatoes often watch reality shows, sports, talent shows, contests, or soap operas, none of which challenge the mind—except to Johnson

Given everything we have included above in this review, we were surprised that Walter Kim, or for that matter the New York Times, would buy into so much hyperbole and bad science without at least emitting their trademark snarks. Or at least a "yes, but . . ." If one's entire frame of reference is Johnson's tome, we are still left gasping from logical leaps as wide as the Grand Canyon and ending up at the shaky position that these things are actually making us more intelligent. Granted, Johnson's tome makes the case that entertainment is better than it was decades ago, but his remaining points are unconvincing at best, and propaganda from the TV networks at worst. The New York Times is part of the entertainment empire so it makes sense they'd circle the wagons to defend it—and we really shouldn't have been surprised.

The New York Times is part of the entertainment empire so it makes sense they'd circle the wagons to defend it—and we really shouldn't have been surprised
The New York Times is part of the entertainment empire so it makes sense they'd circle the wagons to defend it—and we really shouldn't have been surprised


TVs are monsters sucking our brains from our skulls
TVs are monsters sucking our brains from our skulls

It sheds light on Kim's swallowing of Johnson's shaky thesis hook, line, and sinker when you learn he's written several critically acclaimed novels a couple of which ended up as movies, which he could never pull off unless he knew the right people and had solid connections. He really wants his books, and by extension all books, to make people smarter—especially once they end up on big and little screens. Perhaps they do—who can say? The problem here is that we do not know. There are too many unknowns and nothing close to proof. Or as Amos used to say to Andy in the Amos 'N Andy Show (1951-1953): "Thah's too much conFUSion in heah, Andah!"