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May 13, 2005

The Benefits of Pop Culture?

Malcolm Gladwell has a fairly short review (fairly short for the New Yorker, anyway) of Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You. Johnson, who is a former editor at the defunct online magazine Feed, attempts to show that pop culture is actually making us smarter, not dumber.

My one big comment on popular culture is that Sesame Street is a useless show now. When our 10-year-old was a toddler he watched it every day and got a steady diet of the alphabet and numbers. That spacy 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9...10 pinball video, lower-case N sitting on a hill, Kingdom of the Number 8, African Animal Alphabet...Even the Sally Cruikshank videos ("Island of Emotion", "Beginning, Middle and End", etc) taught you SOMETHING. Now it's all about feelings and sharing and all that hooha that every other kids show drills into you. Basically if you want to grow up to be a panhandler, Sesame Street is a great education. You can learn more from that half-wit Gooble on Zoboomafoo than "Elmo's World" is ever going to teach you.

Getting back to the topic at hand: Leaving aside the validity of his thesis (Gladwell says it is interesting, but misses part of the story), I love Johnson's imagined popular opinion of books, if they had arrived centuries after video games instead of the other way around:

"Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . .

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.

Posted by AdamBa at May 13, 2005 11:11 PM

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There's a lot to be said about how books can develop a persons imagination.

Those points you single out illustrate, to me, that that author doesn't have much of an imagination.

Posted by: at May 14, 2005 01:00 AM

The author is *somewhat* kidding (it's a theoretical, invented quote). He is pointing out that we have developed an ordering of how "good" things are for you, based more-or-less on how much electricity they consume, which may no longer be accurate. Today's multi-level-plotted TV shows and immersive, non-linear video games are a far cry from "Leave it to Beaver" and Pong. Why is training on a flight simulator considered crucial for pilots, yet playing "Flight Simulator" is considered a waste of time for teenagers?

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 14, 2005 12:39 PM