Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
By Steven Johnson
The interactive nature of games means that they will inevitably require more decision-making than passive forms like television or film. But popular television shows-and to a slightly lesser extent, popular films-have also increased the cognitive work they demand from their audience, exercising the mind in ways that would have been unheard of thirty years ago. For someone loosely following the debate over the medium's cultural impact, the idea that television is actually improving our minds will sound like apostasy. You can't surf the Web or flip through a newsstand for more than a few minutes without encountering someone complaining about the surge in sex and violence on TV: from Tony Soprano to Janet Jackson. There's no questioning that the trend is real enough, though it is as old as television itself. In Newton Minow's famous "vast wasteland" speech from 1961, he described the content of current television programming as a "procession of...blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder"-this in the era of Andy Griffith, Perry Como, and Uncle Miltie. But evaluating the social merits of any medium and its programming can't be limited purely to questions of subject matter. There was nothing particularly redeeming in the subject matter of my dice baseball games, but they nonetheless taught me how to think in powerful new ways. So if we're going to start tracking swear words and wardrobe malfunctions, we ought to at least include another line in the graph: one that charts the cognitive demands that televised narratives place on their viewers. That line, too, is trending upward at a dramatic rate.
Television may be more passive than video games, but there are degrees of passivity. Some narratives force you to do work to make sense of them, while others just let you settle into the couch and zone out. Part of that cognitive work comes from following multiple threads, keeping often densely interwoven plotlines distinct in your head as you watch. But another part involves the viewer's "filling in": making sense of information that has been either deliberately withheld or deliberately left obscure. Narratives that require that their viewers fill in crucial elements take that complexity to a more demanding level. To follow the narrative, you aren't just asked to remember. You're asked to analyze. This is the difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent. With many television classics that we associate with "quality" entertainment - Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Frasier - the intelligence arrives fully formed in the words and actions of the characters onscreen. They say witty things to each other, and avoid lapsing into tired sitcom cliches, and we smile along in our living room, enjoying the company of these smart people. But assuming we're bright enough to understand the sentences they're saying-few of which are rocket science, mind you, or any kind of science, for that matter-there's no intellectual labor involved in enjoying the show as a viewer. There's no filling in, because the intellectual achievement exists entirely on the other side of the screen. You no more challenge your mind by watching these intelligent shows than you challenge your body watching Monday Night Football. The intellectual work is happening onscreen, not off.
But another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Recall the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half century of television's dominance over mass culture, programming on TV has steadily increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties. The nature of the medium is such that television will never improve its viewers' skills at translating letters into meaning, and it may not activate the imagination in the same way that a purely textual form does. But for all the other modes of mental exercise associated with reading, television is growing increasingly rigorous. And the pace is accelerating-thanks to changes in the economics of the television business, and to changes in the technology we rely on to watch.
This progressive trend alone would probably surprise someone who only read popular accounts of TV without watching any of it. But perhaps the most surprising thing is this: that the shows that have made the most demands on their audience have also turned out to be among the most lucrative in television history.