i think he means it

Steven Johnson is on NPR's "Fresh Air" today (3pm EST). He wrote a book called Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. I won't have time to read this book, but it might be cool if someone (Dr. Neds-Fox perhaps) read this and commented on it. His basic premise is simple: "Today's popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter." And because it's so simple, he will get lots of reads, letters of love and hate, and undoubtedly, tons of academic reviews--mostly complaining about the over-simplicity of his argument. Given that he writes for Wired, among other things, I'm sure his argument will get large circulation/use by techno-nerds, teenage boys, and geeks who like boardgames and video games, like myself. But I wonder a couple of things when thinking about his argument:
  1. Should we divorce "smarts" from "morals" so cavalierly? In other words, does training in handling complexity with parallel training in how to use that training irresponsibly/criminally (like in GTA, for instance) actually benefit society? Does it benefit a civil engineer to know how to drive a stolen cop car through L.A. at high speeds? Yes, it may increase his hand-eye coordination, but does it do that better than a game of hockey might? Should that matter?
  2. What would Neil Postman say? If the medium is, or majorly influences, the message can we really equate things like chess, say, with Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, or even GTA? Aren't our brains working differently when handling the type of information presented by different media? And if that is the case, couldn't we say some game playing is actually better than others? Might we say that the creativity and interactivity of a game like 1000 Blank White Cards makes your brain exercise differently and more holistically than when you're playing GTA? (Sorry to pick on one videogame--it's the one Johnson talks a lot about.)


Blogger Joshua said...


he goes way beyond "hand-eye coordination," but you're right about divorcing morals from smarts, or "content from form," as it were. he never examines the whole calculus of positives and negatives, never brings together all the levels of goods and bads and weighs them against each other (although, peculiarly, he's a big proponent of cross-disciplinary systems theories).

and this is just ripped from 52 books: "And he misses an important point, IMO: as creators of media become more sophisticated (complex) in their forms, they also become more sophisticated in 'framing the discussion.' We're becoming increasingly leadable because we're addicted to the amazing feats of complexity worked into our entertainments. We'll follow them wherever they want us to go. We might be getting better at problem solving or social networking, but we're still as dumb as sheep when it comes to striking off in our own direction."

8/05/2005 3:53 PM  

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