A book reignites debate over pop culture's value

When Steven Johnson's book about popular culture hit stores in May, he was prepared for a barrage of hate mail. After all, the author takes a rare position: that playing video games and watching TV shows like "The Sopranos" and "24" actually expand minds rather than numbing them.

No flurry of angry correspondence has arrived yet, but that doesn't mean the book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," isn't stirring debate. Critics are concerned that the title alone will give Americans - and their kids - license to spend more time with the remote. And at the very least, the book is raising questions about the effects of popular culture at a time when research about the benefits of electronic entertainment is increasing.

"Steven's book is generating great discussion. Everywhere I go people always ask about it," says Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I've [gotten] everything from skepticism to real enthusiasm.... A lot of the people I've talked with are parents and they're struggling with these questions."

The generally positive reviews and commentary about the book have prompted one critic to campaign for more balanced coverage. Jim Taylor, a psychologist, is challenging Mr. Johnson to a public debate and hopes to do so soon, perhaps on television.

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough debate on it," says Mr. Taylor, author of the recently published book, "Your Children Are Under Attack: How Popular Culture Is Destroying Your Kids' Values, and How You Can Protect Them." Johnson, he says, "offers no direct scientific evidence that popular culture makes us smarter."

In his book, Johnson, a science and technology writer, sets aside the debate over the content of pop culture - which he says already gets enough attention - and focuses instead on whether it engages or sedates the mind.

He makes the case that popular culture has become more intellectually challenging in the past 30 years, and is possibly increasing people's IQs.

To make his point, Johnson compares TV shows like "Starsky and Hutch" to "The Sopranos." The '70s cop show had one plot line throughout, whereas an episode of "The Sopranos" often has as many as 10 threads. A show like "24," he writes, "makes the viewer think in ways that earlier shows never dared; it makes them analyze complex situations, track social networks, fill in information withheld by the creators."

The same changes are true in video games, such as SimCity (a city simulation), which require more time and thought than using a joystick to help Mr. PacMan eat through a series of dots. The more complex technology gets, the more kids demand from their entertainment, he suggests, forcing all of pop culture to be more challenging to compete.

"Somebody who's played 'The Legend of Zelda' all the way through, you sit them down in front of [1970s sitcom] 'Three's Company' and they're going to be bored stiff because it's just not the level of engagement and problem solving that they've come to expect from their game," he says in a phone interview.

Perhaps even more provocatively, he suggests that increases in IQ scores in the past century could be related to more challenging entertainment. He elaborates on his weblog (stevenberlinjohnson.com) and in interviews about the connection between abilities that some pop culture taps into and what IQ tests measure, including problem solving, pattern recognition, and spatial logic.

"There's a strong case for it, but it is certainly unproven," he says. "I'm hoping this book will spark more research into it."

While critics agree that not all pop culture is bad, they also suggest that a responsible discussion about it has to include the abundant research about connections between popular culture and everything from violent behavior to obesity.

"[Johnson] neglects something far more fundamental to children's development than smarts, and that's values," says Taylor in a phone interview. "Values underlie who we are, and smarts have little redeeming value without healthy values to guide them. Some of the most evil people in history were very intelligent."

Still, a growing body of work by researchers suggests that there are some benefits to television and especially video games - which are more often being explored as classroom tools.

"I would say not only is popular culture today more complex than it was 20 years ago, but the kinds of intellectual and moral content of popular culture today is better than it was 20 years ago," says Mr. Jenkins, who is also one of the leaders of the Education Arcade (formerly The Games-to-Teach Project). He says fans of reality TV, for example, are more often engaging in debates about ethical and moral choices.

In suggesting that some good can come from popular culture, no one is advocating addiction, or letting down a moral guard, Jenkins says. Instead, he explains, "find material that is consistent with your values and consume it in an intelligent way to take advantage of the complexity that's already there."

Johnson also recognizes that popular culture has shortcomings - such as the ability to consistently help develop emotional intelligence. He encourages parents to continue to oversee children's amusements.

"For people whose kids, say, are playing some of these games, they should not assume they are a complete waste of time," he explains. "If they are spending an hour or two in these worlds in their free time, that's great, that's fine, as long as they are doing other things."

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