Saturday, August 13, 2005

Another book review


Well, I finished another book--and this time I finished it only one day past the due date. It's tough being topical and having to fight others for books on a library's hold list . . . you don't get to renew them and so, if you aren't sufficiently dedicated in your reading, you'll end up paying fines. But, at least the money is going to a community service.

This book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter is a very interesting read. The title says it all . . . the most dangerous items in our culture, the banes of our children's existence--TELEVISION, VIDEO GAMES, the INTERNET--aren't really turning our minds into mush. They are, in author Steven Johnson's opinion, making us smarter, smarter even than we were thirty years ago.

We are getting smarter precisely because these media outlets challenge our brain moreso than conventional wisdom would have you believe. There is still bad television out there but the average plot on television is more complex today than it was thirty years ago--the number of characters interacting, the amount of interactions, etc. It helps the brain learn to deal with complexity--even if the show is not Pride and Prejudice or Nicholas Nickleby.

This applies to reality TV as well--surely one of the most vilified genre's on television. Johnson isn't defending Fear Factor but he does argue that the complexity of interaction and plots on a typical episode of Survivor gives your brain a workout. That is what is really the crux of the matter here. No one is saying that television or video games are nourishing in a cultural or artistic sense, but they do challenge the synapses and encourage the brain to keep track of multiple plot threads and multiple character arcs over an extended period of time.

This sets TV and today's computer games apart from their predecessors in earlier generations--the level of complexity that modern viewers and gamers take for granted. Gunsmoke is to 24 as Pong is to Grand Theft Auto.

I found the book to be very engaging and convincing in its arguments. Now that doesn't mean that I am going to let Ariel and Ruth spend all day in front of the TV and wave it away as stimulation for the brain. But I won't worry so much if they want to watch Finding Nemo for the eighth time . . . after all, it is a lot more complex than Bambi ever was.

2 comments:

Jack Thunder said...

from the beginning, this sounded like a book written by just another pop culture apologist.
but i haven't read it, so i could be wrong.
i have yet to hear anyone make the objection: "yes, but in 1970 kids (everyone, actually) weren't spending 5-7 hours watching tv (or playing video games, etc.)."

being chased from our suburban homes every night and pursued by rabid cheetahs would probably make us all smarter, too, but i don't see anyone arguing for that!

does the book ever address this issue of 'comparative time spent'?

Burb said...

The author doesn't argue that playing video games, watching TV is MORE valuable than reading Tolstoy or practicing your SAT analogy skills.

His point, as narrowly focused as he can make it to avoid the inevitable backlash, is that we should understand that such activities as video games, television, et. al. are not complete wastes of time in which our brain atrophies into mush.

He wants readers to understand that these activities do influence the brain in ways that ARE beneficial. We can learn important skills and develop our ways of thinking from these activities that are useful.