Book review – Everything bad is good for you

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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

McLuhan:

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

different.

I give this one 4 higlighters.

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