Book Review: “Everything Bad is Good for You”
By Bakari Akil II, PhD
Steven Johnson’s premise is simple. Our current pop culture disseminated through television shows, movies and video games have many redeeming features even though it contains high levels of violence, sexual material or as some put it, mindless entertainment. For the reader unfamiliar with Johnson’s work it is helpful to note that Johnson often uses a macro-level approach when analyzing this issue. This ‘big picture’ approach allows him to analyze the supposed broad effects of mass media; the pop culture it creates and how it affects its users.
Television and Movies
Johnson argues that television programming has substantially changed over the last 50 years from shows with a few characters and easy to follow plot lines to television shows with multiple plots, multiple characters and never ending stories. In the past, sitcoms and dramas were predictable and could be wrapped up in 30 to 60 minutes. Not now! Shows such as Prison Break, Daybreak, 24, and the Sopranos keeps the audience guessing, don’t spell out everything, if anything, and often leaves the viewer in suspense, sometimes for an entire season.
This, Johnson argues, forces the viewer to participate on many levels. The viewer can no longer sit and passively watch their favorite television shows, they must pay close attention. The creators of such shows sometimes start from the end or middle and work their way back to the beginning. New characters often enter the storyline with no introduction and the audience is forced to figure out that character’s purpose. Depending upon when the viewer starts to watch a show, they may have a hard time figuring out what the show is all about. New plot lines may emerge out of nowhere and the audience has to quickly figure out why. In addition, these shows such as ABC’s short-lived Daybreak, starring Taye Digs and Moon Bloodgood, often test their audience’s analytical skills and prods them to guess how the shows will end.
These new types of shows force the audience to use their cognitive skills in ways older television shows have not done in the past. The use of logic, intuition and pure common sense on the part of the audience takes the term armchair quarterback to a new level. Johnson also asserts that many of these shows exercise the social and emotional intelligence of their viewers as it forces them to look at situations and decide what they would do.
This most often takes place with reality television shows. MTV’s Real World, Survivor, dating shows like Flavor of Love and the Bachelorette often shows people in vulnerable states and in intimate moments. The power of such shows, Johnson states, is that it catches people’s true emotions, if only for a split second. That attraction is what Johnson argues is behind the success of such shows and is also the reason why he asserts that it helps improve social and emotional intelligence. Viewers often empathize with the characters or at the least think about what they would do if they were faced with similar situations. Constant viewing of these shows provides the audiences with opportunities to broaden and enrich their social skills and explore their own emotional issues as a result. Yes, these shows can be about mindless activities, but many of these shows do explore issues pertaining to gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, violence, politics and everyday ordinary problems. Additionally, Johnson cites that these shows are not just watched and forgotten. Many people watch these shows with others, discuss them at school and work or discuss them in chat rooms or message boards on the Internet, which further increases their analytic skills and at the least provides them with something to talk about.
Video games may also provide benefits. On a social level, the players play their games with other players and develop bonds through shared experiences. It may not be the ideal experience that a parent may want their child to have, but it does occur. Gamers connect with other players on the Internet, in their living rooms and at tournaments. This allows the video players to bring a social aspect to their gaming experience.
Johnson also argues that video games increase the cognitive skills of its players due to the level of commitment and multitasking it requires to succeed. Gone are the days where players can often master a game in one day or a heavy week of playing. Some games are never mastered and require a number of skills of its players. Johnson discusses studies where video game players cite feelings of well being after playing, improved hand and eye coordination, the ability to assess visual patterns much quicker than non-gamers and improved problem solving abilities overall. Although car crashes, shoot outs and anarchy is not something most parents enjoy seeing their kids participating in as a video game, there is some evidence of video games helping to improve the intelligence of its players in certain ways. Besides, not all video games are of that fare.
In the final analysis, the pop culture that is enjoyed by youths and many adults will always face criticism. In our modern era, sex, senseless violence and entertainment for entertainment sake will always turn certain people and groups off. Yet, the modes that it is being delivered by have allowed the audience to become more than a passive user and engages their cognitive, social and emotional intelligences. In some cases, it makes them think about what would be the best course of action or best way to react. In other cases, it may make them better problem solvers or provide them with opportunities to develop social skills. Either way it’s not mindless, in order to participate, they have to think and isn’t that what we want people to do, think for themselves.