Kids, put down that homework and watch some television immediately!

Everybody knows what's wrong with America today: pop culture. Conservatives may lose their wars on Social Security and judicious judges, but nobody seems to oppose their jihad against Janet Jackson's sad little nipple. Liberals may want to thwart the right's attempt to turn PBS into Fox News, but few defend lower-brow entertainments; and when they do, it's on the grounds of free speech. Everyone seems to concede that the rising pop culture is stupid, crass, violent, ugly, worthless, and stupefying—a great beast whereby we're "amusing ourselves to death," as Neil Postman put it. But everybody is wrong, argues Steven Johnson in his Malcolm Gladwell–esque contrarian critique Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead, $23.95). In fact, average American IQs have soared 13.8 points during the last 46 years of supposedly narcotizing entertainment. Violent school crime has plummeted 50 percent in 10 years. Right-wingers have vainly struggled for decades to produce data proving pop culture rots your mind or incites destruction, but Johnson can rattle off scads of evidence that video games hone visual intelligence and memory (not just eye-hand coordination). He says hard-core gamers are "consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively" than nongamers. "They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with nongamers." Why might this be? In a fascinating, factoid-studded, wide-ranging essay, Johnson compares today's pop-culture texts with those of the past and concludes they're getting more complex, not simpler and stupider. TV classics were imitations of three-act Broadway plays or vaudeville variety shows, which featured very few characters and plotlines. The revolutionary 1981 Hill Street Blues multiplied the plot threads, and its 10 microdramas per episode pale next to The Sopranos' dozen threads and 20-plus characters. When America liked Ike and loved Lucy, jokes had a vaudeville time scale, 30 seconds from setup to laugh track. "With Seinfeld, the gap between setup and punch line could sometimes last five years" (e.g., the seven Art Vandelay jokes embedded in the show's 180 episodes). It takes brainpower to keep track of all that information. Instead of the traditional TV-wasteland practice of diving for the lowest common denominator—what an NBC exec termed "Least Objectionable Programming"— today's moguls go for the Most Repeatable Programming: shows that reward multiple viewings on DVD, reruns, and on-demand. The old network model was passive, unlike reality TV—which invites us to concoct alternate strategies to the ones devised by those coconut heads on Survivor. Since "some anthropologists believe that the explosion in frontal lobe size experienced by Homo sapiens over the past million years was spurred by the need to assess densely interconnected social networks," the social analysis required by reality TV could be taking the human race to a whole new level of sapience. Just imagine—Richard Hatch's naked ass is a tipping point in cognitive history. Here's the highest praise Johnson lavishes on reality TV shows: They're like video games, which require the two brain-training functions he calls "probing" and "telescoping." In the former, The Apprentice and Grand Theft Auto both offer a series of competitive tests of systematically increasing difficulty, and they don't tell you the rules at the outset—you have to deduce them. Unlike multitasking, "telescoping is all about order, not chaos; it's about constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks . . . perceiving relationships and determining priorities." Chess has been shown to organize the brains of kids who play it, so why not Grand Theft Auto? "When gamers interact with these environments," Johnson says, "they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method." So pimps and hos can be our teachers, since the virtual sex and violence provide a challenging matrix that simplistic single-thread sitcoms don't. Gamers have got to think and plan ahead to whack the other gangstas—rather than just waiting for the punch line. Johnson is a clever and original pop-culture defender, but his obsession with mentally improving structure makes him indifferent to content. To him, Grand Theft Auto and SimCity offer the same improving cognitive lesson. I defend to the death the right of GTA players to hunt and kill, but you have to admit it's nasty. And I love the eye-candy pleasures of America's Top Model, but let's not prettify reality TV—it's not making me any smarter than I Love Lucy did. Still, Johnson does something that most pop-culture pundits seldom do: He makes you think. Steven Johnson will appear at UW Kane Hall, Room 110, $5 (free with book purchase at University Book Store), 7:30 p.m. Fri., May 13.

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