Have recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s 2004 book on pop culture: Everything Bad is Good For You. A fascinating read – and certainly helps to explain the prevailing resurgence in TV programming (and makes me feel a bit better about my West Wing (et al) obsessions – after all it’s always good to understand one’s own hang ups a little better). Like a lot of such books, its case could probably have been presented in half the space. But there you go.

The main thesis is that pop culture (in particular movies, tv series, computer games, internet etc), far from the bain of all bookworms and luddites is actually beneficial. It stimulates the mind in unexpected but constructive ways and even prepares people for the complexities of modern life! Well how about that! Here are a few quotes:

The impact of computer games

To non-players, games bear a superficial resemblance to music videos: flashygraphics; the layered mix of image, music, and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences. But what you actually do in playing a game – the way your mind has to work – is radically different. It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order. (p62)

Then check this out:

The game scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the ‘probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink’ cycle:

1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
Put another way: when gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method. (p44-45)

On what ACTUALLY happens if you are addicted to computer games:

Another recent study looked at three distinct groups of white-collar professionals: hard-core gamers, occasional gamers, and non-gamers. The results contradict nearly all the received ideas about the impact of games: the gaming population turned out to be consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with non-gamers.

The impact of TV

On the complexities and in-jokes of modern series like The Simpsons:

According to one fan site that has exhaustively chronicled these matters, the average Simpsons episode includes around eight gags that explicitly refer to movies: a plotline, a snipped of dialogue, a visual pun on a famous cinematic sequences (Seinfeld featured a number of episodes that mirrored movie plots, including Midnight Cowboy and JFK). The Halloween episodes have historically been the most baroque in their cinematic allusions, with the all-time champ being an episode from the 1995 season, integrating material from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Godzilla, Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Pagemaster, Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Alien III, Tron, Beyond the Mind’s Eye, The Black Hole, Poltergeist, Howard the Duck, and The Shining.

The film parodies and cultural sampling of The Simpsons usually get filed away as textbook postmodernism: media riffing on other media… But I think it’s more instructive to see both these devices as sharing a key attribute: they are comic devices that reward further scrutiny. The show gets funnier the more you study it – precisely because the jokes point outside the immediate context of the episode, and because the creators refuse to supply flashing arrows to translate the gags for the uninitiated. (86)

On why the famed TV debate between Nixon & Kennedy might not have been set such a bad precedent after all:

So what we’re getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia – it’s crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential president, information we had no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus…

That’s not to imply that all political debate should be reduced to talk-show banter; there’s still plenty of room for position papers and formal speeches. But we shouldn’t underestimate the information conveyed by the close-ups of the unscripted television appearance. That first Nixon-Kennedy debate has long been cited as the founding moment of the triumph of image over substance – among all those TV viewers who thought Nixon’s sweating and five-o’clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy in the end. Perhaps all those voters who thought he had won after they heard the debate on the radio or read the transcript in the papers simply didn’t have access to the range of emotional information conveyed by television. Nixon lost on TV because he didn’t look like someone you would want as president, and where emotional IQ is concerned, looks don’t always deceive. (102-103)

In the 70s the mandate of TV producers was to provide Least Objectionable Programming (LOP – in order to maximise ratings) – mainly because you would only see a programme once and not again. But with the advent of DVDs and the web, the chance to rewatch programmes has multiplied. Now the aim is to produce Most Repeatable Programming (MPR) Neil Postman was reacting rightly to the shallow and pathetic of 70s TV. But things are different. Programmes like The West Wing, Lost, 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, are light years away from 70s stuff – which is why they are so addictive, and more significantly, rewatchable:

The MRP model cultivates nuance and depth; it welcomes ‘tricks’ like backward episodes and dense allusions to Hollywood movies. Writing only a few years after Klein’s [LOP] speech, Neil Postman announced that two of television’s golden rules were: ‘Though shalt have no prerequisites’ (meaning that no previous knowledge should be required for viewers to understand a program) and ‘Thou shalt induce no perplexity.’ Postman had it right at the time, if you ignored the developing narrative techniques of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. But twenty years later, many of the most popular shows in television regularly flaunt those principles. (162)

The impact of the Internet

Steve Jobs on why the Internet is better than TV

Almost all forms of online activity sustained are participatory in nature: writing e-mails, sending IMs, creating photo logs, posting two-page analyses of last night’s Apprentice episode. Steve Jobs likes to describe the difference between television and the Web as the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. The networked computer makes you lean in, focus, engage, while television encourages you to zone out. (Though not as much as it used to, of course.) This is the familiar interactivity-is-good-for-you argument, and it’s proof that the conventional wisdom is every now and then, actually wise. (118)

On how the internet actually reverses a decades-long cultural trend:

Television and automobile society locked people up in their living rooms, away from the clash and vitality of public space, but the Net has reversed that long-term trend. After a half-century of technological isolation, we’re finally learning new ways to connect. (124)

Perhaps, the book overstates its case a bit. But it was definitely stimulating and thought-provoking. Which is all one really wants in a book. Especially if it is going to keep me away from watching the West Wing extras disk in my TWW boxed set.

My Ko-fi button

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