Everything Bad Is Good for You

Steven Johnson argues that pop culture isn’t just good for us, it’s a cognitive workout for the brain.

This slim manifesto addresses that whisper of guilt that arises whenever you feel like you should pick up a book but end up watching Desperate Housewives. Inspired by Sleeper, in which Woody Allen awakes in 2173 and discovers that hot fudge is now considered a health food, Steven Johnson argues that pop culture isn’t just good for us, it’s a cognitive workout for the brain. Movies, video games, and television, he says, are getting more sophisticated, and, in turn, are making us more intelligent.

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In this formulation, the video game Grand Theft Auto does not represent the latest insult to Western civilization, but rather a chance to engage in “telescopic” thinking and to pleasure the “seeking” functions of our minds. This may sound like counterintuitive hocus-pocus, but Johnson is a careful thinker, and he cleverly uses neuroscience to buttress his analysis. Apparently, it’s halfway accurate to say that you’re addicted to The Sopranos.

Whether or not Everything Bad is correct, it is a brilliant speculation, the first volley in a spirited argument that the decline of reading may not mean the end of intellect. While Johnson is not an apologist for pop culture’s excesses, he’s a necessary counterbalance to those who are blind to its charms, and, perhaps, its virtues.