The Right Coast

May 11, 2005
The New Intelligence
By Mike Rappaport

From a review by John Leo in the Wall Street Journal (not available online without a subscription):

Steven Johnson, the author of last year's "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life," is now determined to topple the reigning clich├ęs about pop culture. Not to worry about all those sarcastic sitcoms, humiliating reality shows and murderous video games, he says in "Everything Bad Is Good for You" (Riverhead Books, 238 pages, $23.95). Throughout the vast wasteland a kind of education is taking place: Electronic culture and movies are teaching us how to grapple with an ever more complex society.

Following Marshall McLuhan, Mr. Johnson argues that most of us pay too much attention to the content of pop culture and not enough to how the culture alters our minds and frames what we learn. Video games may be obsessed with shooting aliens and rescuing princesses, but they build cognitive muscle by dangling rewards and forcing decision-making. They develop "visual intelligence" and "coping skills."

It is true that at least since the Mario Brothers game hit the console in the 1980s, parents have been quietly amazed that very young children can negotiate video worlds where the rules are unclear. Picking up rules on the fly is a decisive advantage in life, Mr. Johnson notes. So is the ability to persist long enough to penetrate a complicated world. The average video game takes 40 hours to complete, yet millions of young people who would be sure to fall asleep after five sentences of Hemingway are willing to play to the end.
I sure hope Johnson is right, for my kid's sake. John Leo, the author of the review, is skeptical, though.