The 'Bad' Guy

Steven Johnson is the author of
Steven Johnson is the author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," in which he declares that "the most debased forms of mass diverson" hone mental skills. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

NEW YORK

There seem to be two Steven Johnsons. And at this particular moment, it's hard to believe they're the same guy.

There's Steven Johnson, Swell Dad, the one who sits across the table from you in his Brooklyn dining room and politely interrupts your conversation to commune with a way-cute toddler who's dashed in bearing bottled water and news from the outside world. "Hi, Rowan! Oh, thank you, that's very helpful. Was it hot outside, buddy?" he says.

Then there's Steven Johnson, Parents' Nightmare.

This is the guy who's been parading around calling video games like Grand Theft Auto and TV shows like "24" brain food for your kids. He's the provocateur who titled his most recent book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" -- a deliberate "nana-nana-boo-boo" to the Books Are Better crowd.

"The most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all," Johnson writes. They offer an increasingly rigorous "cognitive workout." What's more, the mental skills they hone "are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books."

Well.

You're a parent of two teenagers who has spent years trying to reduce their exposure to the addictive, sexualized, violent and relentlessly commercial output of the Great American Pop Culture Machine. (They've turned out just fine, thank you, despite never owning GameCubes.) You've read "Everything Bad" and found it smart and stimulating but also utterly infuriating. Twelve pages from the end, you've hit a passage so annoying it made you want to schlep up to Brooklyn and fling Johnson's argument back in his handsome, smiling face.

Which would be a lot easier if he weren't such a likable guy -- and if that charming child of his didn't keep getting in the way.

'Almost Like a Life Form'

Johnson's championship of popular culture comes with a significant irony: If he'd been born just a couple of years earlier than 1968, he'd likely be teaching "Middlemarch" to undergraduates today.

He grew up in Glen Echo, the son of a lawyer and a health-care advocate. From the beginning he was a huge reader, the kind of kid who starts thinking at age 9 that he wants to be a writer. As an undergraduate at Brown, he majored in semiotics. As a grad student at Columbia, he studied English lit.

"I sat there reading 75 19th-century novels when I was 24," he says, laughing, "and it's a huge part of who I am."


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