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.: Everything Bad is Good for You

» Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson  
Short, entertainingly written, an easy read. Johnson makes a compelling case that popular entertainment is progressively making us smarter. He falls down at the end of the book with the argument that only context matters, not content. While I agree with the main argument of the book, this assertion is too simple. It's true that content is not important in building the problem-solving abilities and neurological structures Johnson describes. (And I would note that many classic texts are filled with disturbing events and world-views—ever read The Book of Judges?)

But content does have an effect. I remember reading a study years ago that found that people who watched soap operas over-estimated the percentage of married people who had affairs compared with people who did not watch soap operas. The advertising industry would not have thrived all these years if content did not have the ability to impact our attitudes and behavior. The problem, in my opinion, isn't shows that portray bad people doing bad things; it's shows like "24", which portray good people doing reprehensible things because they are "necessary". (Last season became almost a running argument for government-sponsored torture.)

Johnson also fails to address the question of why our complexity-seeking brains have been so willing to zone out for the last 20 years in front of simple-minded television shows. Something was attracting us to the medium. (This isn't a flaw in his primary argument, but it is a question that arises from his premise—which I believe—that our brains seek complexity.)

But overall, a good read and a smart observation. If you haven't read the NY Times article, recommended.  [ 06.30.06 ]

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