#EmptyShelf 2016 #24: Everything Bad is Good For You by @stevenbjohnson (Penguin, 2006)

everything-badSo, this book has been on my shelf for “quite a while” – originally written in 2005, it’s a fascinating look at the debates surrounding popular culture before Facebook really became ‘a thing’ – and it chimes with a whole load of stuff I’ve said in Raising Children in a Digital Ageparticularly the notion of judging popular culture against elite culture of the past, rather than judging it on its own merits! Similarly, Beyond Chocolate, an organisation that I’ve come to truly appreciate over the last 7 years, argues that we can each learn to understand what is ‘nutritional’ for us by understanding what is ‘good for us’, dependent upon what we need … and this also seemed to be seen here.

We’re constantly told that popular culture – the TV, the internet, etc. is ‘mindless entertainment’, that it’s doing nothing for us, reaching for the lowest common denominator, and that we should be doing ‘real things’ (how many times have you heard that kids should be getting off their iPads, and going outside… without a recognition that many are afraid of the outside world, and therefore parents don’t want their kids to go out unaccompanied). On his website Johnson says

This one sparked a slightly insane international conversation about the state of pop culture — and particularly games. There were more than a few dissenters, but the response was more positive than I had expected.

He had created the notion of the ‘Sleeper Curve’, in which popular culture has become more intellectually challenging, rather than less. Look at the storylines for a typical TV series, and compare it with TV series from 30 years ago (bearing in mind the developments of the VCR and DVD, which have allowed re-watching and re-engagement and thus more complex storylines, and also the development of the internet (given the shortest section of the book here – but noting Steve Jobs description as TV as lean-back, whereas online is a lean-forward activity) which has allowed online conversation and in-depth analysis), and see the number of complex plotlines and cross-cultural and cross-episodic references that have to be maintained in one’s head (and I’d never expected to see 24 compared to Jane Austen (p113)!

I learnt a lot about games (always the weakest area of my knowledge, but one that many parents/youth workers are concerned about).Our society, often unconsciously, prioritises certain forms of knowledge and ways of being, and we often value the associated skills that come with them – e.g. for reading (p23) “effort, concentration, attention, the ability to make sense of words, to sculpt imagined worlds out of mere sentences on a page.” I loved this idea of what might have happened if books had been invented after games:

Gaming is often seen as something that gives instant gratification, but for most, there’s a huge amount of learning of how to play (the rules of the game often aren’t clear), taking a number of risks, and having to play and re-play to move forward… something many kids will do for hours (and take in a vast amount of learning in the meantime – for instance in Sim City, learning about what makes cities work – which if you tried to teach in a classroom, amy struggle) – something now commonly known as Gamification. Even reality television is given insights – especially related to the notion of audience engagement … why do we care, why do we feel that we can have opinions on the participants?

This book may have been written pre the big take off of social media, but many of the arguments in it are still relevant. We still hear the same arguments about popular culture – and these are often written by those not engaged in those activities but speaking from a place of fear. We typically judge the present by the best of the past, rather than remembering that much of the past had poor quality culture in it too. If we look at popular culture tools as tools that can help us in problem solving, and if we’re mixing it (as a media) with other things, then it’s aiding our development in particular ways… understand the particular skills the tool can encourage, and don’t judge it by the skills that it doesn’t. Johnson encourages us to look at all of this from a range of disciplines – including arts, humanities and the (neuro) sciences to gain a full picture of how it works. I’d applaud this, and think this is the kind of knowledge that can truly inform policy decisions … rather than the fear stories we so commonly hear in the media. The book takes a sudden turn at the end for those who want read a bit more, which highlights some of the academic disciplines that this knowledge works within. I enjoyed reading this book in under 24 hours.