Sunday, April 01, 2007

Everything Bad is Good for You

by Steven Johnson
In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher took a staple subject of opinion columns everywhere -- the idea that the English language (or whatever language one happens to speak) is going downhill -- and refuted it by way of a grand tour of the evolution of language. Steven Johnson does the same thing, though somewhat less grandly, with a similar idea: pop culture is in steep decline. He argues that, while there will always be plenty of dreck, the complexity of mainstream popular culture is generally increasing, and that requires more active intellectual engagement than ever before. While one could easily sit back and let Dragnet or Starsky and Hutch wash over you, one actually has to stay sharp to keep up with the multiple plotlines in Veronica Mars or 24. Video games such as The Sims require the player to juggle dozens of variables, as opposed to Pac Man's "eat or be eaten" scenario or Frogger's "be careful crossing the street."

Johnson is careful not to say that any of this new media could or should replace more traditional media; as cognitively beneficial as today's fast-paced, multi-level media may be, nothing can replace the benefits of a good book. But he does strongly feel that brains will always be attracted to challenges, not stupefaction, and our culture reflects that as strongly today as it ever has.