Friday, June 10, 2005

A Tale Told By An Idiot

Everything Bad Is Good For You, By Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2005

Steven Johnson’s recent book, churning up the controversial water, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter is of the category of human interest news-hook bestseller. This is the sort of item that local news channels just love to slot into their schedules so you don’t feel too bad that giant auto corporations are laying off thousands or about that genocide currently going on in Africa somewhere. It’s on par with the FDA’s misunderstood announcement that being slightly, slightly overweight can have health benefits, fodder for late night comedy monologists and office watercooler flapdoodle opinings.

A best-selling science author, Johnson decides to jettison all his rationality and neuroscience and write a book filled with unproveable hypotheses, assumptions made prior to the facts, distorted and cherry-picked evidence, misleading graphs and tables, and a one size fits all thesis that he wrestles every argument into fitting. On the last point, Johnson comes off very much like the slightly smarter cousin of blowdried bubblehead Greg Behrendt who’s been spurred by Oprah to take the ridiculous one-size-fits-all imbecility represented by his tome, He’s Just Not That Into You, and to boil down every relationship difficulty or trouble into those six words.

The title itself is a provocation, the hook, and it’s the very start of the misrepresentation. Johnson never actually makes the point that everything derided as bad about pop culture is in fact beneficial (merely that which he approves of), but he poses at first as though such were the case. Those so-called experts are wrong! Johnson posits what he calls The Sleeper Curve, a name cribbed from a scene in Woody Allen’s Sleeper in which doctors chuckle at twentieth century foolishness in believing cream pies and hot fudge to be bad for you. The main thrust is that video games and television programming are becoming more sophisticated and more complex and are thus making us smarter, exactly the opposite of what bluenoses like Steve Allen, George Will, and Dr. Spock have told us*. The proof? Well, IQ scores are supposedly rising in what’s called the Flynn Effect (though Johnson neglects to mention studies demonstrating this effect leveling off), nor does he note the difference between an IQ score and real intelligence, nor ever question the values of differing kinds of intelligence.

I suppose if you look at anything in a certain way, it’s possible to find the silver lining. And so children, who spend hours and hours on their spreading bottoms, muscles atrophying save for those in the forearms, verbal skills deteriorating from lack of face-to-face interaction with others, are really developing finely tuned abilities in pattern recognition and problem-solving skills. They’ll be ready for the multitasking New Economy and bookworms like me will suffer, oh we’ll suffer.

It’s impossible to argue with Johnson’s point that video games have increased in complexity, as computers become ever more advanced and technology ever refines the graphic capacity to provide more and more lifelike decapitations. Since this improvement in complexity and sophistication happened over such a short space of time, the effects should be more noticeable than the glacial pace of the increased intricacy from Mancala to Monopoly. Yet missing from all of this is the kind of studies that prove the link here. Johnson insists upon his conjecture without moving the ball forward from wacky hypothesis to theory through the use of any data or figures. Everything Bad is long on suppositions and short on relevant facts.

I myself grew up on Pong, Missile Command, Yar’s Revenge, Super Mario Bros., and the original Legend of Zelda, the antiquated and primitive games Johnson sees as The Lascaux to Grand Theft Auto III’s Degas, so I am not approaching this as one who hates all video games or is incapable of seeing increased complication. Nevertheless, the case here is weak, even scantier than you could imagine. If Johnson is so sure of himself in this argument, why does he feel the need to present evidence so stacked and clearly not impartial? Consider this description from the notes about the differences inherent between the original 1987 version of Legend of Zelda’s controller and 2003’s GameCube. 1987: “Fighting: 2 buttons.” 2003: “Fighting: More than 10 different button combos. Requires accurate timing and coordination.” He pads out his exhibit by letting us know that the 21st century edition requires “accurate timing and coordination” which was apparently lacking back in the day when you could press buttons willy nilly. This sort of jury-rigged evidentiary comparisons show up throughout the book, such as the later comparison between television show plotlines.

And this is what we’re supposed to credit with rising IQ scores. Since video games involve learning how to play them and internalizing their specific logic, a trait in no way similar to learning the rules of new card or board games, becoming proficient in the methodology of fishing or knitting or any other new physical activity, or even reading an unfamiliar genre of writing, they represent something remarkably different that has changed everything. Johnson is even dismissive of those who would learn something new in the concrete world instead of the digital one: “Some people find this kind of exploration appealing in ordinary life: they’re the sort that actually enjoys looking under the hood of a car.” Note the language choices: “some people,” a “sort” who “actually” enjoy the (sigh) “ordinary” world; then the coup de grace, they’re merely the mechanics and plumbers of the world, peons who don’t recognize that the only intelligence that matters is what you can learn from Ultima Online.

Curiously too, Johnson is weirdly stunned that gamers’ thought processes should so mirror those of the games’ creators, that those who play a game written in computer code (nested small tasks that build up to a larger whole task) should take on the mentality of it. The old saying, “For the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” must have never been spoken in Johnson’s hearing. It is a self-evident commonplace that you are shaped both physically and mentally by that which you do (which might explain why I spent much of college immersed in both booze and Bukowski). And so either a.) a larger task broken down into a series of nested smaller tasks one must perform by pressing buttons and twisting joysticks in a precise order, or b.) a plotless, aimless ramble through a city, learning the value of prostitutes, police chases, and carjacking is making us “smarter” in some never-specified sense of the word, but something kind of like the mind of video game creators.

We are told reassuringly that video game content (sword fights, decapitations, the mowing down of others by machine guns, etc.) is an unimportant element and that de-emphasizing it “shouldn’t be seen as a cop-out” because what really matters is that kids (users) are learning the “physics” of the game world and are making sense of their environment in the absence of explicitly spelled out rules. These skills, along with the ever-present pattern-making, pattern-identifying abilities, are touted as the causes of how we’ve grown so much smarter these days, content be damned. I’m certain that in the real world I could learn much about physics and anatomy as well, should I choose to decapitate someone, but it’s knowledge unlikely to gain me entrance to Harvard Medical School, no matter how well I pair it with watching reruns of Scrubs and St. Elsewhere.

Never you mind that in his section on television, Johnson later dismisses the content of Dallas and other complicated, multi-threaded narratives on long-running shows such as One Life to Live (1968-Present), Days of Our Lives (1965-Present), and Guiding Light (1937-1952/radio, 1952-Present/TV), as “fluff.” Content is unimportant, except when content can be used to dismiss absurdly complex rutting and murder scenarios in favor of gritty, hard-edged social realism of the kind shown on Fox’s 24, a show steeped in realistic scenarios, no doubt.

And the worst part of that is that Johnson could have pointed to these long running soaps, then cited the myriad of studies proving women (soap opera’s primary audience) have historically outscored men on IQ tests, but didn’t. In dismissing content when it was convenient and embracing it when it was helpful, Johnson walks right into a contradiction. What is clear from Johnson’s evidentiary examples is that shows he likes (24, Seinfeld), that he considers valuable, he thinks are improving the lot of mankind, while shows he doesn’t care for (Guiding Light, Dallas) aren’t. He’s making a stunningly dishonest argument for why his taste is better than other people’s, no more, no less.

And nowhere is this tenuous case of pop culture’s benefits, shouted from the rooftops as gospel, ever proven,. Let’s be up front and frank about that. Johnson discusses at length pop culture, IQ test scores, and improvements in visual capacity by gamers, but nowhere in the entire book does he present irrefutable cause and effect, nowhere cites studies that make his specific point, nowhere marshals the kind of persuasive accumulation of data that create incontrovertible ground on which to stand.

Instead we are treated to the book’s first half proving that Dallas is by far a poorer show than The West Wing and that Starsky and Hutch is Pong to 24’s SimCity. This is done by showing us a graph of shows in which “the vertical axis represents the number of individual threads, and the horizontal axis is time.” Starsky and Hutch, despite being described as oscillating “between the perspectives of the cops and that of the criminals” and also including “a comic subplot that usually appears only at the tail ends of the episode” (at least three plot lines by my count) is shown as an entirely straight single line with a single uptick at the beginning and end of each episode. By contrast, shows that only bare a faint resemblance to Starsky and Hutch are far more complicated, demonstrating how programming has grown ever so much more densely plotted in today’s world. Fans of old shows with a number of subplots such as The Phil Silvers Show should shut up at this point because Johnson can’t hear you — he’s spreading memes.

This is argument would seem all fine and good and would be a sterling case if television programming was limited to merely four or five shows that we could compare and contrast, but it’s not. Johnson selectively chooses the shows he pits against each other and it’s the biggest fixed fight I’ve even been witness to. It’s almost as if I wished to make the case for more funding for PBS and did IQ tests of viewers of Sanford & Son and viewers of Masterpiece Theatre and presented as my findings that public television clearly made you smarter while commercial television turned you into a Ripple addict.

I won’t even argue with the comparisons’ measurements. What I will argue on this point is that Johnson is clearly and unfairly arguing across genres. Dragnet is more like Starsky and Hutch in that they’re buddy detective crime shows with relatively simple, single-threaded stories. Crime is committed, detectives track down criminals, justice is served. To then compare that to multithreaded shows with a variety of subplots all competing for your attention, shows like Hill Street Blues, ensemble police drama, or The Sopranos, mafia family drama, is to miss a salient element of comparison. Why not stick with the same subgenre and then compare across time? Why suggest that Survivor is the equivalent of The Love Boat and then crow about how much smarter we’ve become? Is Dragnet really all that much more complex than your typical episode of Magnum, P.I. or Law & Order? When you remain in one genre, Johnson’s case is harder to make.

And if complicated narrative threads are all it takes to prove intelligence, I could string you out the argument that we are getting dumber, citing falling SAT verbal scores as my evidence, and conclude it’s because we’ve moved from King Lear with at least nine separate plot threads to Waiting for Godot’s one. I could point to Ulysses’ vocabulary of 30,000 words and ridiculously complicated cast of characters and their inter-relationships, then compare it to Danielle Steele’s considerably smaller world. I could ask why Life with Jim isn’t as complicated as The Cosby Show or even The Brady Bunch, why 1-800-MISSING pales in comparison to Twin Peaks. I could point to the millionth badly composed teen diary blog and stack it up to Anne Frank. The sword cuts both ways.

The complexity element is a real issue, television shows are getting more characters and more inter-relationship oriented dramas in prime-time, but it is a considerable leap over a chasm to pair that to rising IQ scores, and it’s a leap Johnson doesn’t even dare. He just repeats endlessly that it is soooo obvious, even a dunderhead raised on Mr. Ed ought to get it. What other sociological development could possibly be the mechanism for American** IQ scores rising over the past decades when not renormalized to keep averages at good ol’ 100? Johnson asks, and the only change he can see or imagine is the prevalence of video games and certain television shows that are more subplotted than others. Of course, who wants to hear such dull and non-confrontationally controversial ideas such as: children’s increasing exposure and absorption to the rules of standardized testing, the rewriting of most tests to eliminate cultural biases toward the white man, the eroding of the limiting notions of traditional roles for women and its effects on self-confidence, the increased percentages in the American population of students from Asian backgrounds with more cultural emphasis on study and scholastic achievement, and the general shift away from linguistic and math-based measures of intelligence and toward pattern-recognition exercises as a bias-free methodology? Boring. I practically fell asleep just writing that sentence. And boring won’t get you on The Daily Show.

Johnson talks up a good game about complicated television shows drawing huge market share because we all crave brain challenges, yet the content drives much of this as well. Last season’s Sopranos, critically slighted as not up to the snuff of the preceding seasons, while just as technically complex, was not considered as moving and suffered viewer losses. Likewise, a look at the top Nielsen ratings for the week of this review, included such non-complicated fare as Dancing with the Stars, Two and a Half Men, and a show Johnson sniffs dismissively at, Everybody Loves Raymond. As a whole, this season’s top contenders include three cop-crime shows not particularly complicated (CSI, CSI: Miami, and Without a Trace), two American Idols, two Survivors, Monday Night Football, the ubiquitous Everybody Loves Raymond, and one multithread program Johnson praises, Desperate Housewives. And that one multithread show is merely a tongue in cheek soap opera send-up. Considering the top-rated single event programs of all time, there is not one single multi-thread program listed.

In fact, the whole book hangs its hat on the Flynn Effect which real researchers have weighed in on, citing causes with far greater likelihood and connection to these results. While video games’ increasingly advanced technological platform will keep games ever escalating in their intricacy and verisimilitude, Johnson’s argument would suggest that IQ scores, tied as they are to this factor, would have to continue rising as well. Television shows, however, have a limited amount of growth they can manage in this department before a tight series becomes a collection of vignettes only marginally connected, and as such far less compelling and successful. Researchers T.W. Teasdale & D.R.Owen, in Personality and Individual Differences have already concluded that the Flynn Effect is leveling off in some places.

All of which brings us back to the novels Johnson found so old fashioned. Let's be fair, Johnson does recommend books and reading, he makes his living from them after all. But books are faintly praised in comparison to the flashing now now now of video. While our brains may be being forced to work harder on certain levels, there has to be a qualitative measurement of the work they’re being asked to do which is why content can be important, as well as format. Slaves and concentration camp inmates were made to work devilishly hard and yet never gained that six-pack abs so sought after today. Likewise our brains, encumbered with multitasking at work staring into computer monitors while assessing workload, might benefit from the more focussed attention a good short story or novel can provide rather than continuing its diet of flashing and blinking and artificial immediacy.

As well, we could restate the already well-documented benefits of reading in place of watching that third rerun of Seinfeld in order to appreciate that oh-so-clever Art Vandelay reference once more time. Novels have long presented readers with multilayered stories, complex sentence structure, challenging ideas, and the surprisingly pleasant work of imagining characters, events, settings. They also come with the added benefit of improving one’s vocabulary and often, as a corollary to that, one’s ability to communicate with others. There are worse directions for society to go.

* If you first thought of Leonard Nimoy and not the childcare expert, you just proved my point, dipwad, and not Johnson’s.

**More from Johnson’s blog suggesting that British television has long had a history of more complex television and yet they’ve experienced the Flynn Effect, which would, I guess, leave it all on the shoulders of Doom.

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