Scott McCloud recently finished Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You Book”, and gives it a very positive review. I still haven’t read it all the way through – I dipped in, but couldn’t really engage with it at the time. I did post a couple of blog entries contrasting the overall message of the book with that of Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, here and here. Now to add some more to the discussion…
I think the amount of information that is available blinds some people to what it means to be ‘informed’ – Postman clearly sets out a strong argument for supporting the notion that TV led to a society awash with ever greater amounts of information yet at the same time much less well informed. Those lines that scroll by at the bottom of the screen on the 24 hour news channel give plenty of information – but very little context or analysis. News reports themselves, many will argue, are less probing or analytical than they were at some indeterminate time in the past.
However, thanks to another link Scott included, I found the following quote from Steve Johnson himself:
Most of this revolves around how you complete the sentence: “Watching TV Makes You Smarter… Than What?” If you read the article (and of course even more so the book) you’ll see that the proper end to that sentence is: “Watching TV makes you smarter than it would have thirty years ago.” There are plenty of things out there that will make you smarter than watching TV will — the point is that there is a long-term trend in television towards more nuance and complexity…
So what he is saying is that popular culture isn’t actually making people smarter than other forms of culture. No, it’s making people smarter than popular culture used to do. But use of the word ‘smarter’ implies a lot about the effect on overall intelligence – and it should not be too unexpected that having been trained to consume television since a young age that people get better at consuming television. Even Postman argues that this is the case – that whatever else is learned, watching television teaches people how to watch television. But it is a big leap from here to say that people are actually ‘smarter’ due to this – especially if we can point to problems in other areas of intellectual development (see elsewhere on this blog).
Further, Johnson’s book (as far as I read at any rate) completely overlooks the not-insignificant Twin Peaks effect.
Against some resistance from the networks, David Lynch and Mark Frost were able to produce a show with considerably more “nuance and complexity” (to use Johnson’s words) than the norm for the beginning of the 90′s. And the show was a big hit and huge commercial success. It didn’t just win a big audience – it won an audience whose demographics included a wealthy and literate audience who often didn’t watch television. Rather than some gradual ‘smartening’ of the audience, the show proved that there was an existing audience who wanted more complexity and nuance that television was delivering at that time.
Did pop-culture make this audience smarter, or did the discovery of this audience, this demand, force the networks – in their search for advertising revenue – to allow creative and imaginative programme makers room to smarten pop-culture?