Steven Johnson (author of “Emergence” and “Mind Wide Open”) writes about his forthcoming book – “Everything Bad Is Good For You.”
Unlike my first three books, which were all to varying degrees intellectual travelogues with me as a kind of tour guide (“let me travel with you through the world of emergence, or neuroscience, and show you the interesting landmarks”), Everything Bad is a pure work of persuasion, an old-fashioned polemic. It’s shorter than the others, and barely has any chapters, and I’m not really introducing the reader to outside experts as the last two have. It’s just me trying to marshal all the evidence I can to persuade the reader of a single long-term trend: that popular culture on average has been steadily growing more complex and cognitively challenging over the past thirty years. The dumbing-down, instant gratification society assumption has it completely wrong. Popular entertainment is making us smarter and more engaged, not catering to our base instincts.
I call this long-term trend the Sleeper Curve, after that famous Woody Allen joke from his mock sci-fi film where a team of scientists from 2029 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge. (In conversation, I sometimes describe this book as the Atkins diet for pop culture.) Over the course of the book, I look at everything from Grand Theft Auto to “24,” from Finding Nemo to “Dallas,” from “Hill Street Blues” to “The Sopranos,” from “Oprah” to “The Apprentice.” There’s some material about the internet, too, though less than you might suspect. (And I’m pretty sure the word “blog” never appears — imagine that!) The critical method I’ve concocted for making the argument is one of my favorite things about the book — it draws a little on narratology, a little on brain science, a little economics and media criticism, a dash of social network theory. But it tries to yoke all those disciplines together in a consistent and unified way. Or at least I think it does.