Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Everything Bad Is Good for You (Steven Johnson)

Two words: Monkey Olympics. That's what the low end of reality TV (with Fox as the ringmaster) has become in recent years. Remember Lorenzo Lamas's laser pointer on Are You Hot? The "couples" on Married by America? And that horrifying game show The Chamber that involved extreme heat or cold that the contestant had to deal with while trying to answer trivia questions?

I've watched a lot of TV in my life, definitely enough to call myself an expert. I grew up on 1980s' game shows (Tic Tac Dough, Bumper Stumpers, Card Sharks) and know most of the words to the theme songs to Charles in Charge, The Facts of Life, and Perfect Strangers. After countless seasons I've finally shook the habit of The Real World, but I still watch a lot of fluff (while I could use the excuses of cultural experiences in The Amazing Race and the craftmanship of the designers in Project Runway, I really don't think there is any such excuse for our series recording of America's Next Top Model).

I used to make excuses for what I watched (especially around the "I don't own a TV" people), but I don't feel the need to offer any arguments any more. And when I saw Johnson's book and read on the jacket sleeve that it would tell me how watching The Apprentice is making me smarter, I thought I'd give it a read. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that the complexity of today's popular culture creates more participatory situations for our brains. The old TV model was based on episodes in bubbles, no backstory, no foreshadowing, and nothing that might be considered offensive (though with hindsight much of it does seem slightly offensive. Benson as a servant? Really? The executives thought that was a good idea?). Today's popular TV shows have multistranded plots that usually involve heavy viewer participation (i.e., 24, Lost, any show where if you step in midseason you're probably not going to know what's going on). My only real problem with Johnson's argument is that I find him a little too pleased with how great TV is today: he says that even the crap TV has improved, but I'm really wondering if he's seen some of the stuff on these days (see "Monkey Olympics" above).

Besides TV, Johnson talks about films (Finding Nemo gets mentioned most of all--apparently one of the author's sons was 4 years old during the writing of this book), the Internet, and has a heavy focus on video games. Seeing as I'm a girl and, despite a brief fling with Sonic the Hedgehog on a friend's Sega, that I had the original Nintendo only, my gaming skills do not go beyond Dr. Mario--I couldn't beat Super Mario Bros 3 and that's where it ended (damn that level 8 with your flashlight view!). I found the video game discussion interesting, but I'm sure that those of you who played Zelda for hours on end will find it more so.

Other good books: Johnson's book is an interesting read and will definitely give you something to think about, but I found The Math Instinct more fun and engaging (the two books both talk about intelligence and how different kinds of intelligence appear in real life and the classroom).

Next book up: The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits

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