Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Imagine a version of Brave New World where soma and the feelies make you smarter"

In Part 2 of Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson sets out to show the proof in his argument that the added complexity of pop culture is actually improving the general population's mind.  He begins by looking at IQ tests over multiple generations and notes that average IQ scores have gone up, especially in "problem-solving and pattern-recognition skills" measured by the Raven Progress Matrices test (148-149).  Johnson does not give evidence that this increase in IQ scores is definitely created by the change in pop culture, but does point out that the increase is measurable across culture and environment.  There is a bit of a leap of faith to believe that there is no other cause that could have created this score increase or that pop culture in conjunction with some other factor caused the score.

Johnson touches on the profit in making TV shows and movies more complicated, citing increased DVD sales which reward repeated viewings.  He argues that before VCR, DVD, DVR and a host of other acronyms you pretty much got one shot at seeing a TV show, so if the show was too complicated and it was easy to miss small details you would lose your audience, which means a loss of profits.  Now that you can watch and rewatch shows and movies there is profitable motivation to make these layered and complex enough to warren multiple viewings.  If the show is too simple, there's no reason to see it multiple times which means there is no reason to buy it on DVD.

Johnson mentions that neuroscience shows "that the brain has dedicated systems that respond to -- and seek out --new challenges and experiences" (181) and says this is why people seek out more complex forms of entertainment.  And while it is true that the amount of reading people do is on the decline, so are all forms of entertainment because there are so many different things for the average person to do now and there are still the same number of hours in a day.

Can you think of any anecdotal evidence of pop culture improving the mind?  Or do you think pop culture is catering to the lowest common denominator? 

Title quote from page 179

Johnson, Steven.  Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  Riverhead Books, New York.  2006.