The title of this book gives the impression that within its pages you will find the reasons that Krispy Kreme will help you lose weight, badmouthing other people strengthens them and playing Halo makes kids more intelligent. Sadly the only one of those claims Steven Johnson backs up as the author of this bestseller is the one about video games. In fact, this book is solely concerned with popular culture, specifically our interaction with it through technology. That means we’re talking about video games, television, movies and the internet (but mostly video games).
The general thrust of the book is that conventional wisdom (and most of the cultural commentary out there) regarding pop culture is wrong. For the most part we constantly hear/read that the media (of popular culture) is getting worseÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âthat it’s becoming more salacious, more violent, more dumbed downÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âand that it’s ruining those of us living in that culture. Johnson suggests the opposite. He thinks that it’s not only becoming smarter and more complex, but that we are becoming smarter and more complex as a result.
Video games is what he spends most of his time on and with good reason. Of those four media video games gets the worst rap, yet has some of the most beneficial rewards. Through a series of facts and anecdotes he lays out the importance of interaction, of trial and error (aka ‘exploration’), of creating your own narrative and of intense focus and concentration. These are things that you’re not likely to do while reading a book. He makes several similar points regarding the improvement of television and film (their increased complexities force our minds to develop a more sophisticated cognitive process). He also inserts a number of interesting factoids that are common misconceptions such as the fact that the most popular video games are rarely the violent ones but rather the ones with no fixed story-line (The Sims, the Civilization series, Everquest, sports games, etc.)
One of his main points is that the content of the media isn’t as important as the vehicleÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦at least when it comes to the person’s intellectual development. He suggests that comparing this media to The Illiad or Hamlet relies on a false premise: that the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent. He says:
“[Popular media] of this sort has little to offer in the way of moral lessons or psychological depth; it won’t make students more effective communicators or teach them technical skills. But most of us readily agree that it is good for the mind on some fundamental level: it teaches abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding casual relations that can be applied in countless situations, both personal and professional.”
He reminds us of the timeworn clichÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© that parents have their kids figure out how to use the remote control. This isn’t because kids are so good at reading instructions or intuitively understanding the buttons, rather they are used to and are experts at fiddling with stuff until it works.
I think Steven Johnson’s biggest weakness is his lack of evidence. The entire second half of the book is devoted to this very issue, and even though he uses several convincing studies to back up his thesis, it still felt like it needed more. However, he also points out that our “conventional wisdom” is based on a lack of evidence. He knows that there needs to be a moderation in all things, that a diet of only our popular culture would have drastic consequences, he’s just pointing out that there are many positives to what we conventionally think as negative. He thinks of this as the beginning of a conversation.
I liked this book a lot. And the reason I liked it so much was not so much because it validates the Xbox 360 in my home (though that’s a nice side effect), but because it just made sense. It admits that we can’t give the easy answers we used to, that our culture is more complex now and we can’t package it in tidy little boxes anymore.