clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, May 16, 2005
I had first heard about Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You on BoingBoing a few months back. (Johnson's previous book, Convergence, had been featured heavily in the discussion forums of Plastic, my primary discussion board at the time, so his allegience with the nerdosphere is well-established.) Then, right before release, there was the article in the NYT Magazine ("TV Makes You Smarter"), plus Jesse sent me an Amazon link to the book with the note, "This thing seems up you alley."

It certainly does. If you're unfamiliar, Johnson's basic argument is that, contrary to the widespread idea that popular media has a negative effect on your mental and social skills, it is in fact beneficial to these things. In the course of making the argument he addresses TV, video games, and, to a lesser extent, movies and the internet, drawing on a number of fields of study (economics, media theory, neuroscience) in an attempt to make his argument more or less objective, while at all times shying away from the tendency some popcult boosters have to see its primary positives as hidden, "subversive" messages, instead doing his level best to take the genres on their own terms.

Based on this description, it would be understandable if you'd think I would be all for this. But, sadly, I'm not, although I would certainly like to be. Maybe my frustration at the book stems from the fact that it's one of the first mainstream attempts to participate in a project very close to my heart, the acceptance of pop. Maybe if I wasn't so close to the subject it wouldn't be so hard to embrace. But it is.

First, though, a few positive points, or at least defenses. It seems a lot of people have based their opinion of the book on the aforementioned NYT article, but that's not really fair, no matter how much it is or isn't Johnson's fault to highlight that particular portion of his work. I'll agree that, taking the article on its face, its case for the ensmartening nature of TV isn't that convincing, but in the context of the book, it comes alongside a lot of really sharp points about brain chemistry and general IQ trends and has far more evidence backing it up. So if you really want to argue with that, please, pick up the book--it's a good, quick read, and at least you'll know where Johnson is coming from.

Second, although I haven't really read the Slate dialogue about it yet (quite intentionally), I have seen people saying things along the lines of "Oh great, now yuppies can feel their lives are validated because they watch TV." But this supposed that TV watching is the enemy of all that is good and right and boho and leftist, which, as we all hopefully know by now, is not the case. Johnson in particular comes at it from a uniquely geeky perspective--the introduction concerns his childhood love of stat-based dice baseball games, and the extensive focus on video games is no accident. (It's certainly hard to complain about this aspect of the book, given the almost universal disdain for gaming.) His attempt to bring actual scientific evidence to bear in a work of cultural criticism, especially since he doesn't seem to abuse it for his own ends. And, insomuch as he's trying to convince parents that pop culture isn't necessarily bad for their kids, he makes some great points about the apparently zombie stare of game-playing actually being an intense focus, one fixated on problem-solving rather than escapism. More than anything else, it's worth praising him for the content of his television section, which, purely as a piece of structural criticism, is fantastic and insightful, well worth reading in full (the NYT article left out a bunch of great stuff about economics and semiotics) if you're at all interested in the form. In addition to identifying some great new plot techniques, he also makes some good points about the way the wide availability of DVDs and the prevalence of syndication has encouraged show creators to make entertainment that rewards repeat viewing.

But, that aside, I think the ultimate direction he took with the book was a mistake, a direction which, though it pains me to say so, was probably a direct result of the very male-geek perspective that otherwise makes the book so useful. One of his big premises is the "Sleeper Curve," the idea that pop culture has been getting more and more complex,[1] and that this, in turn, has made our mental processes more rigorous, more able to process complex forms of pop culture, and thus encouraging even more complex entertainments. But as he goes on, this idea tends to take on worrisomely subversive overtones as he tries to make the case that it's essentially tricking people into learning. This, in turn, locks him into a very geeky utilitarian position that results in fallacies such as this one:

The modern viewer who watches Dallas on DVD will be bored by the content--not just because the show is less salacious than today's soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but because the show contains far less information in each scene. (p. 115)
Now, honestly, who has ever watched a TV show and complained about there being too little information? I'm not implying that people prefer their TV stupid, just that stupid and smart aren't really the rubrics by which we actually assess TV. It just seems a wee bit autistic to insist that we make our critical judgments so objectively, to say nothing of the idea that the amount of information is a valid objective standard.[8] The weird thing is, he's not blind to this argument--he devotes a whole (albeit short) section to bemoaning the falloff in consumption of the book form, especially novels. So he understands, I think, that we consume culture for complex reasons, that our pleasure can be tied up as easily in something simple as something complex. It's just that the argument he's making forces him into implying things like after you watch The West Wing, All In The Family can no longer bring you joy. (Particularly not true when you consider that AITF can be more offensive than South Park.)

Still, the complexity theory does lead to some interesting points. Of particular interest to clap clap blog readers would be this one:

[A] significant financial reward does exist for entertainment creators who attract [early adopters] to their products, because it is precisely those experts who end up persuading other people to watch the show or play the game or see the movie. The way to attract [early adopters] is to make products complex enough that they need experts to decipher them. (p. 174-5)
Hey, can you say Blueberry Boat? But, unfortunately, he goes on:

The way to attract these experts, then, is to give them material that challenges their decoding skills, that lets them show off their chops. Instead of rewarding the least offensive programming, the system rewards the titles that push at the edges of convention, the titles that welcome close readings. You can't win over the aficionados with the lowest common denominator. (p. 175)
This is a false dichotomy. A cultural object can be both straightforward and offensive; complexity is just one factor among many. For instance, if Blueberry Boat was about, say, space aliens instead of pirates and traveling salesmen, I would not have been interested, to say nothing of the fact that it also had to be in English and (to be honest) the follow-up to a masterpiece of an album like Gallowsbird's Bark. These are all just tracking variables in the great game of cultural capital; to focus on complexity in isolation leads you to some pretty worrisome conclusions.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the one instance he addresses pop music (in the endnotes, natch):

If pop music today doesn't appear to be experiencing the same Sleeper Effect that other mass forms have, that's partially because the repetition revolution already transformed the music industry some forty years ago, when it switched in the mid-sixties from a business that revolved around throwaway singles [ed: !!!] to one anchored in albums designed to be heard hundreds of times...Ever since the days of the Victrola, popular music has gravitated to songs that would instantly lodge themselves in listeners' heads, but all that changed in the 1960s. Suddenly the top sellers were long-format albums that rewarded repeated listenings, that offered lyrical and musical complexity unimaginable in the jingle-driven markets that had come before. (p. 225-6)
Well gee, Steven, when you put it that way, it sure does sound ridiculous, doesn't it? You mean albums intended for repeat listening like the second Boston album or Fleetwood Mac's Tusk versus "throwaway singles" like those offered by Kid Creole, Donna Summer and Aphex Twin? Gee, that sounds a bit...well, you know. It certainly does make the focus on complexity seem narrow-minded and quite conservative.[2]

And that's exactly what's wrong with Everything Bad is Good For You: the second half of the title. Frustrating as schoolmarmish condemnations of pop culture may be, the fact is that our enjoyment of it is not rooted in edification, in what's "good for you"--it's based in pleasure, in entertainment, in, fundamentally, aesthetics, and that point of view is almost wholly absent here. It just seems very Newsweeky to try and sell people on pop culture based on its healthiness. I mean, ew. Since when are we concerned with what's good for us? Since when has art had to have a practical purpose?

Johnson makes a point of how we can't judge new forms by the standards applied to the old ones, and quite pointedly precedes the first section of his book with the following McLuhan quote:

"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." --Marshall McLuhan (p. 15)
Kudos to him for keeping this in mind, to say nothing of the fact that he made me like something McLuhan wrote.[3] But the fact is, in his focus on complexity and healthiness, he falls into exactly the trap McLuhan was warning about.

For instance, near the end of his discussion of games, he comes around to addressing the content by admitting that, given the outline of the plot of a Zelda game he just laid out, he can see why people might regard them as foolish and kind of dumb:

I suspect that some readers may be cringing at the subject matter of those Zelda objectives. Here again, the problem lies in adopting aesthetic standards designed to evaluate literature and drama in determining whether we should take the video game seriously. (p. 56)
Great point! It seems here like he's heading toward a articulating a new aesthetics that will embrace what's so wonderful about video games. But, sadly, he turns away:

If you approach this description with aesthetic expectations borrowed from the world of literature, the content seems at face value to be child's play: blowing up bombs to get to Dragon Roost Mountain; watering explosive plants. A high school English teacher would look at this and say: There's no psychological depth here, no moral quandaries, no poetry. And he's be right! But comparing these games to The Iliad or The Great Gatsby or Hamlet relies on a false premise: that the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent. (p. 57)
But the problem is that the content is the aesthetics. Johnson mentions that word just long enough to put it in our heads before moving right back to a practical consideration, the aforementioned complexity/healthiness thing--there's no aesthetics to speak of if you're ignoring the themes and characters and plot! (It's also telling that he never actually mentions what TV shows and games look like, a primary source of aesthetics, instead focusing on abstract ideas of structure.) The whole "different standards for different genres" thing is great, but Johnson simply isn't sticking to it. He's failing to articulate new aesthetic standards to replace the ones he thinks aren't applicable here--a task which I think is eminently doable, and long overdue--which means that he can't show how those new aesthetic standards could overcome the old ones--a task that is even more doable and even more overdue--and, therefore, can't really win the argument.

If you have any doubt about my critique here, observe how he resolves the above argument. Check out what standards he thinks should be used to judge video games:

I would argue that the cognitive challenges of videogaming are much more usefully compared to another educational genre that you will no doubt recall from your school days:

Simon is conducting a probability experiment. He randomly selects a tag from a set of tags that are numbered from 1 to 100 and then returns the tag to the set. He is trying to draw a tag that matches his favorite number, 21. He has not matched his number after 99 draws.

What are the chances he will match his number on the 100th draw?
(p. 57-8)
A word problem? Gee, Steven, way to make me never want to play a video game again. "Hey dude, want to come over and play some word problems?" " thanks." It seems a little weird to be arguing against video games being juvenile and shallow by comparing them to a goddamn elementary school math problem, doesn't it? Does Johnson really think people are going to say, "Well, I guess I was wrong about video games, they're at least as artistically valid as something come up by a standardized test writer in Idaho."

And this is exactly why his argument fails: practical considerations like healthiness and morality and intellectual rigor have never been the standard by which we've actually judged art; they've just been a stick used to beat it from Aristotle to Wilde to Karen Finley. Philistines might make charges like "corrupting the youth of Athens" but this is really only because "writing shitty philosophy" isn't a charge you can get someone executed by--"I don't like the art you're making" is still ultimately the argument that's being made, and this is nothing if not an aesthetic argument. Johnson's geek worldview leads him to think that he can actually make an objective argument and convince people, but unless the evidence is overwhelming, they're going to continue to use pop condescension as an easy excuse for sneers, because, well, because it makes people feel good to do it. If you actually want to change the majority viewpoint about pop culture, you have to do something that artists have been doing, again, for thousands of years[4]: changing our aesthetic standards.

What's so frustrating about this to me is that it would seem to require only a small leap, only a minor change, to accomplish, but we're so set in our standards, so locked into these partisan positions that we can't seem to break free. But the only thing we need to change to embrace pop is this: being able to view pleasure as being as legitimate a standard as artistic worth, because they're both, after all, equally arbitrary[5]; being able to stop using a cultural product's status as entertainment as an easy way of dismissing it. I'm ultimately unhappy with Johnson's book because I'm uninterested in any argument about pop that doesn't embrace its possibility of rapture.[6] Pop's power comes from the fact that it is so popular, and it wouldn't be so popular if it didn't give people an immense amount of pleasure, and this pleasure is in no way, shape, or form entirely tied up with the number of plotlines in a given episode. Pop's genius lies in the new ways it has discovered to convey happiness, to impart joy. That video-game stare is concentration, sure, but it's also the look of someone who's having a very good time doing what they're doing. But we are unwilling to embrace this. Because of the particularities of our culture, we seem unable to accept the best argument for something being good is that it makes us happy, and until we are, I'm not so sure we'll ever be able to fully accept pop.[7]

All of this said, I don't want to actually discourage you from reading Johnson's book; I just thought it could use a critique from someone who's sympathetic to its aims. Despite its fundamental flaws, a lot of the details are absolutely fantastic.

[1] This all leaving aside, of course, the fact that he dates this trend more or less from the invention of television, ignoring any complexities in legitimately pop entertainments--radio, song, etc.--that predated TV.
[2] I hate saying things like "conservative," but I'm doing so pretty deliberately here, because what Johnson's advocating reminds me particularly of goddamn T.S. Eliot and the whole "difficulty" thing which I thought we all abandoned when we realized it results in pretentious, unreadable crap. Uh, not that I have a grudge against Eliot or anything. (That "Hollow Men" riff was rockin!) But still, I don't think focusing on the intellectual rigor of a work is a particularly new or useful idea.
[3] Perhaps, like Foucault and so many before and after him, he's been seized on and misrepresented by partisans. Maybe I should read him, but, eh, I've got TV to be watchin'.
[4] An idea I'm stealing from Arthur Danto, who is interviewed here.
[5] By which, to be clear, I don't mean that pleasure should be held as a higher value than artistic worth, just that they should both be considered.
[6] The only time Johnson really does this is in a quotation in a footnote, taken from this article: "We need to learn not to treat differences in taste as mental pathologies or social problems...We do not need to share each other's passions. But we do need to respect and understand them."
[7] Plus, pop opponents, think of it this way: the sooner people fully embrace pop, the sooner there can be a backlash, and you can start liking the counterculture unashamedly again, because you're actually rebelling for once, yeah! Anarchy!
[8] UPDATE: Hillary, currently immersed in Dallas, even thinks they're wrong about the amount-of-information thing.