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A writer named Steven Johnson is getting lots of notice for a new book called “Everything Bad is Good for You,” which posits the thesis that popular culture is becoming more sophisticated and making people smarter. Malcolm Gladwell reviews it for The New Yorker:


Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.

Gladwell actually seems to be taking this stuff seriously (wouldn’t have happened in the old New Yorker, with Dwight Macdonald on the case). However, since I don’t watch “The Sopranos” (became disillusioned after the first season), “24,” or any of the other shows that are presumably making its viewers brilliant, it may be that my own mental processes, nurtured for the most part on “Star Trek” reruns and “Dynasty,” are just not rapid enough. Thoughts?

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Yeah, TV's been just great for culture.

Think of how much it's improved discourse.

To say nothing of fabulous attention spans.

And the ability to seperate fact from fiction from stuff that just sounds sexy.

Why, thanks to TV and pop culture we're better citizens with a more informed, thoughtful democracy than ever in the best of all possible worlds.

I would have never guessed.

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A few random thoughts:

There definitely is television of artistic worth being made today and in the recent past. I actually think that the episodic nature of the medium enables television series to replicate some of the great trimphs of the novels of the 19th century. That said, there really aren't that many shows that have achieved that triumph - and it goes without saying that Survivor isn't one of them, and honestly neither is Seinfeld.

The writer/s seems to be confusing an ability to be 'smart' with being 'clever'.

It's ridiculous to define reading as an explicit exercise - of course, reading a scientific text which imparts "crystallized knowledge" is explicit, but surely it would be redundant for every middle school chemistry class to rediscover the periodic table. I know that the present educational 'thing' is for hands-on, experiential education, but IMO that's just a whole waste of time. In any event, I don't see how reading a literary text can ever be regarded as imparting crystallized knowledge - oh, well, maybe if the student is reading the Cliff Notes while downloading some really cool ringtones onto his cell phone.

Regarding videogames as logic-solving puzzles. Sure they are, but so are Risk or Clue. Those board games which require as much problem solving skills as any video game, but you do need to concentrate for slightly longer and you have to interact with other people and not give up when it looks like you're losing!

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Thanks for that link, carbro. It also contains a helpful link to Steven Johnson’s blog, where he responds to good reviews and bad ones. Here’s a quote (from him):

We don't have a lot of opportunities in culture to tell a story that lasts a hundred hours, but that's exactly what we're taking in on The Sopranos or Lost or Six Feet Under. I feel totally confident that those shows will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner.
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Every time I've read this argument (and it's been made hundreds of times by now) it's struck me that the writer is, at heart, miffed that he or she isn't considered high brow and sees as the solution the elevation of his or her taste to be considered high brow. I find it tiresome.

Two writers who deal with popular culture as well as high culture that I can think of off the top of my head -- I'm sure there are more -- are Gia Kourlas, who writes regularly in Time Out New York, and occasionally in the New York Times, and Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker (who has a blog The Rest Is Noise . They are so comfortable with themselves that they don't have to argue. They just write. Both appreciate popular culture and high culture. Neither confuses the two, nor wishes to eradicate one at the expense of the other. Why waste time running around screaming that "The Simpson" are too just as good as "Madame Bovary" so there?

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I love "Seinfeld" to the extent that I could quote phrases from the show, and remember which Jerry girlfriend was which. However people who consider this kind of stuff as "complex narrative" blahdiblah just because the lines are better than "Bonanza" should perhaps take a look at a book.

Of course TV commercials have been working towards this kind of hip referentiality, too, so as to hook smart 13-year olds (and those who stay 13 years old, intellectually).

This kind of cultural commentary is just a form of narcissicism. ("Look mom, how smart I am!") It does have a long tradition by now, however, if you consider all the exegesis wasted on Beatles lyrics. I've never understood why people can't let silly fun just be silly fun.

BTW we ditched our TV long time ago. Life's too short.

BTW2 I vastly prefer L'education sentimentale to Mme Bovary.

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I'm hearing a lot of "yeah, right," but I'm not hearing substantive arguments against several of his theses, at least as Gladwell describes them:

1, That there are two types of learning, and there are ways in which popular culture strengthens one type of learning in particular ways. He does not argue that one is superior to the other, just that each is inferior in some aspects that the other is superior.

1. That new, complex video games encourage complex problem-solving skills, including determining what the multi-layered rules are based upon through experience and observation. (He doesn't mention that many of the video games as well as board games we played as children are available online, to be played with other people from all around the world, on demand.)

3. That engagement stimulates part of the way that non-engagement doesn't. That one either has a scientific basis, or it doesn't.

In a multi-cultural world that is linked in ways through communications, economics, and artistic endeavors to an extent that was inconceivable even a generation ago, I have no doubt that understanding a quickly changing environment is a critical skill. And in the current world economy, where employment in the US, Canada, and Europe is increasingly skewed toward services and information, lack of this skill is an economic disadvantage.

Gladwell has delved into many areas where he and the authors he reviews have challenged widely held assumptions to see if they stand up to scrutiny. I don't think this is as a degredation of the The New Yorker's purpose at all.

One thing that I appreciate about both Alex Ross and Malcolm Gladwell is that while they both hold high standards, they don't believe that goodness and greatness is limited. They see abundance of both.

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A quote from the blog Leigh linked to:

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Johnson defines quality, intelligent television as that characterized by complex narratives; multiple and multi-dimensional characters; and open-ended storylines. In other words, the best TV is like Shakespeare. This, I find truly bizarre, because if TV can teach us anything (and I think it most certainly can) it's not by being a substitute for literature, but by doing things literature can't do.
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I hope you guys will stick around for those of us who are (a) slower readers/ digesters/ responders; (b) prefer to wait for the arrival of the magazine in the mail rather than read it electronically; and © find this a fascinating topic that requires extended thought. Thank you, Dirac, for the topic.

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Estelle, because I think the argument could be made that "Madame Bovary," like the novels of Dickens and many others, WERE popular culture; extremely well-written popular novels, intended to be read by a great number of people and enjoyed by people with varying degrees of education and levels of sophistication, and I wanted to forestall someone saying, "But Madame Bovary IS pop culture" :)

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Thanks for the explanation, Alexandra ! I haven't read "Madame Bovary" for about ten years and don't remember much about the circumstances of its creation (except the problems of censorship) but even though it was published as a "feuilleton", I wouldn't see it in the same category of "popular novels" as, say, those of Dumas, Sue, Ponson du Terrail, etc. (e.g. Flaubert's books commonly are studied in high school here, while Dumas', Sue's, etc. aren't).

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I think there may be two separate issues here: one being the high culture/popular culture divide and the other the nature of the 'ideal' individual in society.
The high culture / popular culture divide has been discussed at length on this board. My personal opinion is that the medium no longer is the message: some books are drivel and some television is great (again, Survivor and American Idol are not on that list; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is).
The second issue hasn't been debated as much, but Helene touches on it. I believe that during the past few decades there has been a change in the 'ideal' individual of Western society. An interesting book my husband read this year (sorry, I haven't) called The Jewish Century describes the typical Jew as being Mercurial (as opposed to Appolonian and Dionysian), by which the author means creative entrepeuneurs who are proficient professionals and can communicate with various cultures. This is almost an archetype of the person most likely to succeed in the 21st century. In an earlier time which valued different qualities and characteristics, this person might have been suspect.
The skills taught by videogames are not new ones - many of us were born with the ability to synthesize material quickly and to multi-task. What is new is that these skills are now highly valued.

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There may be a parallel here to the many operas of Franz von Suppe, and the scarcity of their production today. I love the overture to Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna, but wondered why nothing else from this opera seems to survive. One day, I got hold of a script, and found that although the music was wonderful, all the dialogue and lyrics were about Viennese politics of the 1840s. Apparently, a real knee-slapper in its day and place, but not much fun any other way.

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I just came across this thread today and at the risk of wandering off topic had to add that I first thought Alexandra mentioned The Faerie Queen because it is episodic and even dilatory in the way a lot of narrative television is -- new "Books" of the poem introduce new characters and new plotlines in a way that superficially, at least, hardly seems tightly unified in the way Madame Bovary does and most certainly leads to delayed gratification. After reading further into the thread I found she was making an entirely different point!

I also find that a lot of narrative television, even at its most "realist," is highly allegorical--as is The Fairie Queen. That is, characters are quite schematic, and in my opinion are often most effective that way, and whatever a show seems to be about on the surface, it often turns out to be about something else. An easy example would be the way most soap operas turn out to be about incest.

However, this is a far cry from finding the thesis as outlined in the article very compelling. Pop culture is doing something to us, but to find out what exactly probably calls for a more controlled point of departure than a vaguely asserted correlation with rising IQs . I assume some psychologists are out there at this very minute trying to come up with controlled experiments to answer (or ask) the same and similar questions more precisely. (Not that I exactly intend to endorse the authority of that method either...)

I also very much agree with what GWTW says about the oddness of equating reading solely with "explicit learning" -- and also find strangely little said (or even speculated) about the physiological effects of technologies which seem to me must be a big part of the picture of what happens (good or bad) when one engages with television/internet/video games etc. )

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Thank you, Drew and GWTW, for the long and thoughtful posts.

Pop culture is doing something to us, but to find out what exactly probably calls for a more controlled point of departure than a vaguely asserted correlation with rising IQs.


Yes, a program like Seinfeld has multiple story lines involving supporting actors, in contrast to an Old Style sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which there is one main story line and the entire cast kibitzes. This does require the viewer to distinguish the A story line from the B and C story line, although I wouldn’t regard that as rocket science.

I was also puzzled by having reading categorized as “explicit learning.” It depends pretty much on what you’re reading. It’s true that when I read The Golden Bowl, I’m entering a world created, or a narrative controlled in Johnson’s terms, by Henry James. But my imaginative and analytic faculties are also fully engaged.

We can concede Johnson’s point that, for the most part, television series of today are technically better and more sophisticated than those of the past, in general. However, I watched for the first time in many years the old BBC series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII starring Keith Michell. It’s true that, by today’s standards, the camera is static and the pace is glacial. Writer and director think nothing of having everything stand still while actors discuss court intrigue or debate the good and bad points of the English Reformation or Henry’s Continental policy. If HBO did it today, it would have great production values, fancy shots, lots of snappy dialogue, and actresses far more glamourous than Annette Crosbie and Dorothy Tutin. (And lots more sex and violence.) But I don’t think it would necessarily be better or more challenging.

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I agree, GWTW, it turned out to be not much of a debate, didn’t it?

An interesting piece from the Chicago Tribune, by Steven Zeitchik:

So why do so many lament the state of TV and the encroachment of video games? Mostly, Johnson says, because they dwell on the content of the media--which indeed can be more violent and base--instead of the form. Think of word-logic problems on the SAT, he writes; they're educational not because of the content but because they work out a mental muscle. A layperson might see video games as encouraging little more than quicker finger reflexes, but for popular games like Zelda or Grand Theft Auto, success comes only if you can prioritize and probe as you would a Mensa puzzle.


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