In Everything Bad is Good for You, author Steven Johnson develops his theses:
1. "This is the Sleeper Curve: The most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all" (p. 9).
2. "But the dominant motif is one of decline and atrophy: we're a nation of reality program addicts and Nintendo freaks. Lost in that account is the most interesting trend of all: that the popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways" (p. 13).
3. "I am to persuade you of two things: 1. By almost all the standards we use to measure reading's cognitive benefits -- attention, memory, following threads, and so on -- the nonliterary popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty years. 2. Increasingly, the nonliterary popular culture is honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books" (p. 23).
4. "Some environmental factor (or combination of factors) must be responsible for the increase in the specific forms of intelligence that IQ measures: problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic" (p. 142).
5. "Parents can sometimes be appalled at the hypnotic effect that television has on toddlers; they see their otherwise vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouth agape at the screen, and they assume the worse: the television is turning their child into a zombie. ...But these expressions are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus" (p. 181).
Johnson argues that video games, television, movies, and the internet add to one's ability to understand complex patterns, to probe for answers, and to better understand humans and the human drama. Toward that end, after noting there exist few studies confirming his hypotheses, he notes "But these studies are still rarities, which means the strong argument of the Sleeper Curve is still conjecture" (p. 208).
What do I think? I think Johnson is looking for the ether filling all the space in the universe. And he won't find it.
I happen to agree that the mental exercising in some video games is remarkable. I see less of it in Seinfeld (and I am a fan), and less still in the megafilm Lord of the Rings. The issue Johnson doesn't address, and it is critical, is how much exposure to these stimuli do you need to get the benefits he suggests? Johnson gives no amount here, thus seems to state that 10 hours is good, 100 hours is better, and 1000+ hours is best. I keep thinking that addition and times tables work great, up to a point. When do you practice them, and when do you go on to other things? I mean, 1000 hours of times tables? Don't you pick up most of your skill in World of WarCraft in the first 10 levels? Even if you pick up new skills/connections/threads/patterns every level up to level 60, do you still get something out of playing for another 100 hours?
And I kept being confused with the unspoken alternatives. Of course, if you are not watching television or playing video games, you are doing something else. And what part of driving downtown in a car does not involve complex pattern recognition? Isn't life complex? Doesn't Sense and Sensibility allow for complex thoughts? You can perform addition with a calculator or with an abacus. When you are proficient with one or the other, does it make sense to argue that one teaches you more things than another? Hmm.
Finally, it is interesting that Johnson left out the societal problems with obesity, type II diabetes (previously called adult onset diabetes until too many children developed symptoms), and a reduction in writing and speaking skills. Do video games and television assist with these problems, or add to them? I think it is astounding that these health issues are not even mentioned.
"Yesterday's brainiac is today's simpleton," Johnson states. At best this is simply oversimplification, and at worst it is unhealthy, wrong, and misleading.
I gave this book 3 stars. The first 2/3 was interesting, and already I've gotten into some vigorous discussions because of it. That's a good sign for a book. However, I cringe when I think of some people using this as carte blanche permission to play more and watch television more. Johnson does NOT recommend this, and in this case, I agree.