Forget everything you've ever read about the age of dumbed-down, instant-gratification culture. In this provocative, unfailingly intelligent, thoroughly researched, and surprisingly convincing big idea book, Steven Johnson draws from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and media theory to argue that the pop culture we soak in every day-from Lord of the Rings to Grand Theft Auto to The Simpsons-has been growing more sophisticated with each passing year, and, far from rotting our brains, is actually posing new cognitive challenges that are actually making our minds measurably sharper. After reading Everything Bad is Good for You, you will never regard the glow of the video game or television screen the same way again.
With a new afterword by the author.
Steven Johnson's newest book, Future Perfect, is now available from Riverhead Books.
Worried about how much time your children spend playing video games? Don't be, advises Johnson-not only are they learning valuable problem-solving skills, they'd probably do better on an IQ test than you or your parents could at their age. Go ahead and let them watch more television, too, since even reality shows can function as "elaborately staged group psychology experiments" to stimulate rather than pacify the brain. With the same winning combination of personal revelation and friendly scientific explanation he displayed in last year's Mind Wide Open, Johnson shatters the conventional wisdom about pop culture as pabulum, showing how video games, television shows and movies have become increasingly complex. Furthermore, he says, consumers are drawn specifically to those products that require the most mental engagement, from small children who can't get enough of their favorite Disney DVDs to adults who find new layers of meaning with each repeated viewing of Seinfeld. Johnson lays out a strong case that what we do for fun is just as educational in its way as what we study in the classroom (although it's still worthwhile to encourage good reading habits, too). There's an important message here for every parent-one they should hear from the source before savvy kids (especially teens) try to take advantage of it. Agent, Lydia Wills at Paradigm. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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December 12, 2010
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Excerpt from Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Introduction The Sleeper Curve Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them. For me, it's a sheaf of xeroxed numbers that my father brought home from his law firm when I was nine. These pages didn't seem, at first glance, like the sort of thing that would send a grade-schooler into rapture. From a distance you might have guessed that they were payroll reports, until you got close enough to notice that the names were familiar ones, even famous: Catfish Hunter, Pete Rose, Vida Blue. Baseball names, stranded in a sea of random numbers. Those pages my dad brought home were part of a game, though it was a game unlike any I had ever played. It was a baseball simulation called APBA, short for American Professional Baseball Association. APBA was a game of dice and data. A company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had analyzed the preceding season's statistics and created a collection of cards, one for each player who had played more than a dozen games that year. The cards contained a cryptic grid of digits that captured numerically each player's aptitudes on the baseball diamond: the sluggers and the strikeout prone, the control artists and the speed demons. In the simplest sense, APBA was a way of playing baseball with cards, or at least pretending to be a baseball manager: you'd pick out a lineup, decide on your starting pitchers, choose when to bunt and when to steal. APBA sounds entertaining enough at that level of generality-what kid wouldn't want to manage a sports team?-but actually playing the game was a more complicated affair. On the simplest level, the game followed this basic sequence: you picked your players, decided on a strategy, rolled a few dice, and then consulted a "lookup chart" to figure out what happened-a strikeout, or a home run, a grounder to third. But it was never quite that simple with APBA. You could play against a human opponent, or manage both teams yourself, and the decisions made for the opposing team transformed the variables in subtle but crucial ways. At the beginning of each game-and anytime you made a substitution-you had to add up all the fielding ratings for each player in your lineup. Certain performance results would change if your team was unusually adept with the glove, while teams that were less talented defensively would generate more errors. There were completely different charts depending on the number of runners on base: if you had a man on third, you consulted the "Runner on Third" chart. Certain performance numbers came with different results, depending on the quality of the pitcher: if you were facing a "grade A" pitcher, according to the data on his card, you'd get a strikeout, while a "grade C" pitcher would generate a single to right field. And that was just scratching the surface of the game's complexity. Here's the full entry for "Pitching" on the main "Bases Empty" chart: The hitting numbers under which lines appear may be altered according to the grade of the pitcher against whom the team is batting. Always observe the grade of the pitcher and look for possible changes of those numbers which are underlined. "No Change" always refers back to the D, or left, column and always means a base hit. Against Grade D pitchers there is never any change-the left hand column only is used. When a pitcher is withdrawn from the game make a note of the grade of the pitcher who relieves him. If his grade is different, a different column must be referred to when the underlined numbers come up. Certain players may have the numbers 7, 8, and/or 11 in the second columns of their cards. When any of these numbers is found in the second column of a player card, it is not subject to normal grade changes. Always use the left (Grade D) column in these cases, no matter what the pitc