Popular culture may be grubby, but at least it keeps us thinking

Anyone depressed by the diet of violence, idiocy and sex on TV and in computer games can take heart.

As Big Brother joins Celebrity Love Island in the peak-time terrestrial schedules, and the Crazy Frog ringtone tops the music charts, many readers might find themselves agreeing with the doomsayers who cry that television and its offshoots are going to Hell in a handcart.

Popular culture is widely seen as a negative influence on society. Video games, reality TV and soaps are accused of dumbing us down, sexing us up and making violent confrontation seem normal. American columnist Suzanne Fields speaks for many when she says: “The drip drip drip of popular culture dulls our senses. An open society with high technology exposes increasing numbers of adults and children to the lowest common denominator of sex and violence.”

Watching the “highlights” of Big Brother 6 on Sunday night, back to back with those of Celebrity Love Island, just hours after the Crazy Frog had been swept to the top of the music charts on a tidal wave of TV commercials, it was hard not to feel some sympathy.

In the Wall Street Journal, Steve Allan writes: “No one can claim that the warning cries are simply the exaggerations of conservative spoilsports or fundamentalist preachers. The sleaze and classless garbage on TV in recent years exceeds the boundaries of what has traditionally been referred to as Going Too Far.”

But now someone is challenging that view. Steven Johnson, who teaches on New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, claims that popular culture is making us smarter, not dumber. In a new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson argues that the interactive nature of video games and modern TV programmes, along with their multi-dimensional storylines, means young people’s brains work much harder than their predecessors’.

It has been said before that video games enhance children’s hand-eye co-ordination and memory, and that programmes such as The West Wing or The Simpsons hit new heights of creativity. But as Johnson writes, “the dominant motif is one of decline and atrophy: we’re a nation of reality programme addicts and Nintendo freaks.”

Yet that assessment, he says, misses “the most interesting trend of all: that the popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways.”

To see virtue in this, he concedes that you have to dismiss the “morality show” view: that programmes promoting smoking or violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teenage pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role.

More important, he believes, is the type of thinking people have to do to make sense of a cultural experience: “While today’s popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path, it is making us smarter.”

He says TV programmes such as The Sopranos, 24 and The Simpsons make far greater demands on their audience than Starsky & Hutch, Dallas or I Love Lucy. Instead of a single narrative line, with a few primary characters, TV dramas have increasingly developed a technique of “multiple threading”, interweaving strands and characters, so viewers have to concentrate to keep up, or risk literally losing the plot. The Simpsons famously relies on its audience to spot cultural references, deliberately not spelling them out.

Johnson says reality shows, despite their artificial environment, provide displays of genuine emotion rarely seen in prime-time entertainment. The internet enables viewers to debate the ethics of the participants in shows such as Survivor and The Apprentice. And he says video games teach problem-solving and require deep intellectual stamina, engaging boys in a way their schoolwork rarely does.

In a neat twist, Johnson invites us to imagine that video games became popular long before books. What would teachers, parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading?

“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses,” he writes. “Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes – books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Books are also tragically isolating, forcing the child to sequester himself or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.”

Johnson points out that he doesn’t agree with this argument – but he says it demonstrates how one-sided the arguments against TV and video games can be.

Unfortunately, he overstates his case. Even if some Bad Things are Good for You, he fails to show that Everything is. And with Big Brother and Celebrity Love Island, he doesn’t even try.v

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