Book review – Everything bad is good for you

I just finished reading Everything
Bad Is Good For You
. The author, Steven Johnson, makes a quite-convincing
case that today's popular culture and media (video games, television, Internet,
movies), rather than being 'cheap pleasures that pale beside the intellectual
riches of yesterday
,' are much more cognitively complex than what we had
available to us just a decade or two ago. If you haven't yet read this book, I
highly recommend it.
has a short blurb on the book along with a number of excellent links to other
resources and commentary.

One of my favorite parts of the book is at the beginning. First Johnson
quotes Marshall

The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period
whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier
media, whatever they may happen to be.

Johnson then hypothesizes what critics might have said if video games
preceded books rather than the other way around:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the
long-standing tradition of game playing – which engages the child in a vivid,
three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes,
navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements – books are simply a
barren string of words on the page.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years
engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and
exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him- or herself in
a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new
‘libraries’ that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities
are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and
socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to
their peers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that
they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any
fashion – you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. This risks
instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though
they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active,
participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger
generation are learning to ‘follow the plot’ instead of learning to lead.

As Johnson notes, these new forms of communication, participation, and
learning have worth. They're not the vast intellectual wastelands that cultural
critics often claim them to be. Reading still has a great deal of value, as Johnson clearly
states in other parts of his book, but so do these other forms of media. We might sometimes wish that the
subject matter or content matter of these media forms were different – for
example, I personally wish that some video games weren't so violent and gory – but the
bottom line is that the intellectual complexity of popular media is much greater
than before. We would be better served to tap into the affordances of these new
media forms rather than criticizing them simply because they're new and

I give this one 4 higlighters.


8 Responses to “Book review – Everything bad is good for you”

  1. “…his risks instilling a general passivity in our children…”
    BUT if they learn to think, which is what reading comprehension is all about, they are learning to actively participate in their education.
    When I get home, granted I make coffee first, but then I open 7 homepages, log in to Meebo so students or parents can IM me, turn on iTunes to listen to podcasts at the same time I check email, the RSS reeder, check homework, & plan lessons. I am a digital immigrant. Think what the natives must do when they get home! Why can’t we do this in school?

  2. Great book…Ian Jukes recommended it to our admin team before his keynote last summer. Steven has an interesting but unrelated TedTalk on his book The Ghost Map here:

  3. I will be attending sessions with Ian Jukes tomorrow and in the next couple of days at the ETC conference in Bangkok…what a coincidence that he’s mentioned here.

    I am intrigued by this book…but I think it’ll be a hard sell to our English department. I like what he is saying, but telling people that books are not engaging enough is going to get some teacher backs up. It’s just sooo counterintuitive.

    How do we approach this conversation with teachers?

  4. Actually that’s not what Johnson is saying at all, Dennis. He’s just saying that we shouldn’t be so harsh to judge modern multimedia. Read the book first. It’s excellent.

  5. Stephen Johnson writes book and he thinks his books are very engaging…his focus in this book is on the untold benefits of today’s TV shows, video games and media in general. I agree with Ian &’s in the must read category.

  6. Johnson points to increasingly complexity in popular media as evidence that popular culture is making people smarter.

    In contrast Neil Postman pointed out 20 years ago (Amusing Ourselves to Death) that popular media was exposing people to ever increasing amounts of ‘news’ and (often irrelevant) information with less and less context and analysis. This, he argued very well in the book, was leading to a dumbing down of public discourse (Note: he didn’t say at any point that it made people dumb or stupid in any general sense). Reading the introduction of a recent edition, I noted many comments from modern students about how relevant and true many of his comments remain.

    Personally I am unconvinced that increased ability to deal with rapidly changing visual stimuli is evidence of increased ‘smarts’ in any meaningful way. Honestly, is Pirates of the Caribbean II a ‘smarter’ film than “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”? A better made film in many regards, but smarter?

    Nor (in my experience of lecturing a course on computer game technology) does ability and skills at playing games correlate well with much other than ability to play games well.

    Is the ability to follow a verbal argument (without flashy visuals!), sorting out nuances and recalling and making connections between points made earlier in the argument an aspect of smarts? How do you think we compare with previous generations on this count? And with the next?

    I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree, nor do I agree with every point made in the book, but I do recommend the Postman book highly. At least it provides food for thought.

  7. Daniel, thanks for the thoughtful comments. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, I encourage you to also read Daniel’s post on his own blog about this:

  8. Ah. What do we mean by “smart”? That age old question. Is it IQ? Or are we looking for a different type of smart? By being “smarter”, how is this being measured? Therein lies the crux of the problem as each era in society needs to have particular “smarts” in order to function well within the society. I believe that, in some ways, we are smarter in certain respects while, in other areas we may not be. As an administrator, I see students who have a greater understanding of world events but who have a more difficult time following a logical argument and defending their point of view. We gain in some areas while other areas seem to decrease depending on what we focus upon. Do we need to acknowledge that one gains from both reading and the gaming and we need to find a balance.

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