TV culture makes us smarter than… what?

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?

8 thoughts on “TV culture makes us smarter than… what?

  1. John

    for some reason i had a gut reaction of “no, this isn’t correct” when i read this post. i can’t quite place my finger on exactly why i had that, but i did. let me throw out some thoughts and see if this makes any sense.

    are we still in a TV culture? it seems to me the TV culture went out with the late 1990s. we now seem to be in the age of the collective, where people piece together information from multiple sources in order to see the entire picture.

    TV isn’t the answer. nor are newspapers, books or the internet for that matter. but together they allow people to see and hear from a variety of voices and perspectives. that’s part of what drives the popularity of blogs.

    you’ve made an excellent point. there’s more information at people’s fingertips than ever before. some of it superficial, but if and when people want to dig deeper they can. and people do on the topics they are interested in.

    But then again, maybe i’m overestimating people. maybe we’re lost in a flood of information and we’re apathetic. i’d just like to think that’s not the case.

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    I agree with most of your comments there… I don’t mean to imply that modern pop-culture is restriced to TV, but I am focussing on that aspect. I definately agree that the internet (and books!) give people opportunities to seek information to a much greater depth…

    To what degree people use it for this is another matter :-)

  3. Scott McLeod

    Hi Daniel, sorry Johnson’s book didn’t grab you enough to read the whole thing. I obviously liked the book. I don’t know if Johnson’s right or not but he was awfully persuasive.

    Yes, you are correct that he’s comparing mass culture / media today to that of yesteryear. One of the points he makes is that the average person, not just the educated elite, is watching more complex fare, even on TV (e.g., think of the plot complexity of 24 or Lost vs. that of Gunsmoke or Dragnet). In fact, he says it’s often hard for us to go back and watch old TV shows / movies because they seem relatively simplistic compared to what we’re watching now.

    Does simultaneously handling a complex multitude of information/plot streams make us smarter? That’s way out of my area so I’ll leave that to you and the psychologists. All my best.

  4. Daniel Livingstone

    I really have to admit that I came to Johnson’s book pre-disposed to disagreeing with it… which doesn’t help. Not big of me, but hard for me to deny.

    The other side of your question, Scott, is this:
    Does a reduced ability to concentrate on and follow a sustained, complex and nuanced verbal argument make us dumber?

    And is there such a thing as a free lunch?

    ps. I was watching a repeat of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ with Alec Guiness the other day. Completely held by it, though I think it might be considered unwatchable by todays audience as it really isn’t at all visually stimulating. Though it certainly does tax your brain with plenty to recall between episodes. Hard to imagine it being a hit today like it was in Britain back in yesteryear ;-)

  5. Bill Kerr

    hi daniel,

    I’ve been rereading Neil Postman’s book “amusing ourselves to death” and have bought and am half way through another one which might be of interest (I think its really good):
    Frank Furedi
    Where have all the intellectuals gone?

    From time to time I have experienced really good TV, eg. when I was a teenager I saw a TV play Marat-Sade about the French revolution which was a total revelation for me, opening up a whole new world of ideas. Admittedly it doesn’t happen very often.

    I think Postman is a little bit contradictory in that sometimes in his book he does acknowledge good TV
    p. 108
    “The ‘MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour’ is an unusal and gracious attempt to bring to television some of the elements of typographic discourse”

    Lehrer’s Newshour still continues and is one of the few programs that I watch – it frequently has in depth interviews where experts of different views debate current issues

    Postman does make me think about media in a different way – but I also think that the type of society we live in (market driven) influences what ends up being shown (what sells), so I don’t see it in the same way – TV could be very different even though I think he makes a very strong case that certain forms of discourse are best done typographically

    I feel very uncertain about the historical perspective of Postman, which I have also come across in Gatto. ie. the argument that people (in America) were generally smarter before the rise of the telegraph and photography. I would have to explore this some more.

    I’ve also written a blog trying to open up more discussion on these issues:
    although of course its hard to persuade many bloggers to read books :-) but no harm in trying

    at any rate the key tension for me is this -
    “Are we living in some sort of Huxleyian “Brave New World” fog, endlessly distracted from the vital issues of our time? A western form of brainwashing? Contrast this with the Marxist view that the capitalist system creates its own gravediggers. Which is correct?”

  6. Bill Kerr

    hi daniel,

    Important distinction you make about: being ‘smart’ and being ‘knowledgeable’. Intelligence vs wisdom? (link )

    After reading Postman (and also Gatto) I was left with the feeling that they were saying that Americans were smarter around the time when typography was the dominant media, what he calls The Age of Exposition

    Are you saying that it is possible for a society to be smarter in certain ways (trivial pursuits) while at the same time becoming less knowledgeable about more important Enlightenment Knowledge, knowledge with a capital K?

    That’s an insight that might make sense of how some of those conflicting texts relate to each other.

  7. Daniel Livingstone

    hi Bill,
    Thought I’d replied to this, but maybe it got lost…

    I think that this is perhaps a key and easily overlooked issue. While there is evidence that IQs are rising, there is also evidence that people are often less well informed on current affairs than they were in the past.

    One of my other posts mentioned findings that showed that people who used the internet as their primary news source were less well informed on current/recent affairs than those who used print and television. They aren’t any dumber, but it could be argued that they are less capable of making informed choices in many areas of their life (not least elections).

    The contrast here is significant I think. And one I should try and tease out more in future posts – and how it applies to different areas of life beyond simply news and current affairs.


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