Brain strain

Everything Bad Is Good For You: how popular culture is making us smarter

Steven Johnson <em>Allen

As its title suggests, Steven Johnson's essential and rather brilliant little book revels in counter-intuition. Popular culture is not rotting our minds; it is nourishing them. Television has not dumbed down; it increasingly asks us to smarten up. Computer games do not waste children's lives; they expand their cognitive skills. As a result, those of us who languish in the great middle band of intelligence are brighter than we would have been had we been born a hundred years earlier, with only books, lessons and hopscotch to fill our hours.

It is to Johnson's credit that he does not flinch from this second assertion - that society is getting cleverer - for it is by far the most counter-intuitive and, for all his efforts, the least convincing part of his argument. In 1783, to check that he had not gone mad after his first stroke, the author's namesake, Samuel Johnson, made up a verse in Latin. "The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good," he said later. The standard mental health check is now, I believe, to ask who the current prime minister is. In the 18th century, you did not have to be a Sam Johnson to have an ancient language running in your head ready for use. As a young man, 50 years earlier, Dr Johnson had taught at a school where pupils were required to converse with each other in Latin or Greek. At secondary schools today, you get a signed certificate for neatly drawing a man in a toga.

It is not, I have always assumed, that each generation is getting stupider, but that there are so many extra pressures on our time, most of them cultural: television, cinema, video games, the internet. The average person's intelligence is hopelessly fragmented. It takes some nerve for Johnson - a present-day lexicographer of electronic communications - to claim that such diffusion is actually good for the brain. He relies heavily on a historical study of IQ scores in the late 1970s which discovered that while, by definition, the average IQ is 100, over the past century the average score has risen by three points a decade. As far as Johnson can see, only one variable can take the credit, and that is pop culture.

For a variety of reasons - technical, commercial and, above all, in response to consumer demand (we human beings are problem-solving creatures, always wanting to move to the next level) - electronic entertainment is getting brighter all the time. Not having played one since second-generation Space Invaders, I shall have to trust Johnson on the mind-probing complexity of computer games. However, as a general believer that the golden age of telly is here and now, I can only applaud his study of American TV (although his case would be harder to make if applied to British television).

He is particularly sound on American drama. Even though its content may have become less savoury and more violent, it has persistently grown in the sophistication and complexity of its structure and narratives. Johnson draws graphs to show the plotting of Dragnet in the early Sixties, Starsky and Hutch in the Seventies, Hill Street Blues in the Eighties and, now, The Sopranos. Dragnet's single plot is represented by a block of black. Starsky and Hutch had a main plot and a comic sub-plot: a long black block and two black squares at either end. But viewers needed to follow nine plots in Hill Street Blues, whose chart looks more like a crossword puzzle. The Sopranos graph, however, is more black than white, because a single episode will keep on the boil eight plots, and single scenes will deal with three or four of them at once.

With The Sopranos, as with 24 and The West Wing, you daren't not concentrate, particularly given that so much information is withheld or imparted at speed. Such programmes are so demanding that people buy them for repeated viewing on DVD, teasing out details and meanings. The real nuts post their findings on the net. The explosion of DVD sales as well as the secondary market in syndication and TiVo (the American Sky Plus) not only aid repeated viewings, but require producers to make programmes that deserve them.

Johnson is not saying that The Sopranos is better than Middlemarch - or even, in fact, that everything bad is good for you. He is suggesting we change our criteria for what "bad" is; by his own, Survivor, being about strategies and emotional intelligence, is better than the voyeuristic Fear Factor. The jigsaw-like 24 is better than the solo-stories of Law and Order. If our children "want to play a violent game, then encourage Grand Theft Auto over Quake". There Johnson loses me, but despite not knowing the difference between "flaunt" and "flout" and making assertions such as "Madonna has more mind-share than Proust does", he does not lose me very often. Everything Bad Is Good For You is as witty as Seinfeld and as wise as ER. He won't mind my saying that, either.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?