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. Kottke.org
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.