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Everything Steve Johnson Writes About is Bad For You

… which is a good thing.

Steven Johnson‘s book Everything Bad Is Good For You has been out, and blogged about, for a while. I finally had a chance to read it over Labor Day, and have come away amazed at how fresh a view it is on pop culture, games, and even reality TV. If you know anyone struggling with making that connection between games and learning, they need to read the book.

I had actually recommended it (before reading, go figure) for a reading in our Honors Program leaders, since the theme this year is Pop Culture. So we had a copy laying around the office, so I grabbed it before leaving for a long 4 day weekend.

I am not going to try and summarize/recapsulate the entire book, but a main premise is that the knee jerk reaction of looking at kids playing shoot-em up video games, Fear Factor, engrossed in the internet, is not necessarily a clear descent from high culture to low. It’s an easy slip, and one enabled by the fact that the current generation is always out of step with the next, or in the opening quote to Part One:

The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they happen to be.
— Marshall McLuhan

This is another way of characterizing the Digital Natives vs Immigrants.

Early on, Johnson warns about the common fallacy of dwelling on the content of games (blood, killing, rescuing princesses) and not the processes, and activities deemed more “worthy”, e.g. learning algebra or the simple rules of chess are more about the skills acquired, not the actual content. The quote he pulls from John Dewey has really got me thinking:

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lessons or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.

Johnson makes the beautiful case that if conventional wisdom applied to games is that gamers want something to zone out, tune out to, that it makes no sense that the environment these people are hooked on has grown immensely more complex with time– if lethargy was the goals, the games ought to evolve to be more simple. But more so, he urges that the usual nod to increasing dexterity by joysticking it really short changes the problem solving and cognitive processes that goes on in games; they way he breaks down a portion of Zelda to the “telescoping” series of goals:

I call the mental labor of managing all these simultaneous objectives “telescoping” because of the way the objectives nest inside one another…. part of this skill lies in focusing on immediate problems while still maintaining a long-distance view… it’s about constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the correct sequence. It’s about perceiving relationships and determining priorities.

So take these notions of collateral learning and telescoping and look at typical “instructionally designed” learning content boiled down to a discrete set of specific objectives; is there a disconnect? How complex do we make learning? How collateral is it?

And I think it is Johnson’s analysis of reality TV, and doing proper and clever comparisons bwtween say, the Simpsons and Dragnet. so show, once you look past just the content, the complexity of narrative structure in modern shows is much more though provoking and mentally challenging that the stories with the simple and predictable arc.

Again, it is easy to quickly dismiss modern TV (as I too was quick to do with regards to Tommy Lee heading off to college), there is a lot more to it than passing judgement on the content.

The section of the internet is perhaps the least thorough of Johnson’s treatments, maybe because it is not so old, or is well written elsewhere. Or it is too new, too changing.

This is just some of the quick thoughts I had, but Johnson’s view on pop culture is so fresh, new, and insightful, it is invigorating. So maybe if you don’t buy that “pop culture is actually making us smarter” this book should give some deeper thought before just dismissing pop culture as a wasteland.

We give this book 4 paws up.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.