How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually

Making Us Smarter

By Steven Johnson. Riverhead. 238 pp. $23.95

Hello. My name is Bob, and I'm a Tetris addict.

It's been eight years since I deleted the computer game from my hard drive, then frantically tried to retrieve it. Eight years since whole afternoons evaporated with nothing to show for them but eyestrain; eight years since I awakened from my Tetris trance to discover morning light leaking through my window.

Now Steven Johnson informs me the experience made me stronger, and he has even better news for fans of today's more sophisticated games. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson is not talking about hand-eye coordination or reaction times. He claims that video games like SimCity and TV shows like "The Sopranos" give us a "cognitive workout" that buffs the muscles between our ears. We're getting smarter, Johnson says, and the reason is the growing complexity -- the multiple story threads and shifting interpersonal relationships -- of the brain food flickering on our video screens.

If only.

Johnson, who writes for several popular magazines, gets courage points for his daring contrarianism. Finally, an intellectual who doesn't think we're headed down the toilet! Most eggheads have spent years hissing like geese at activities that involve images on a monitor. In the book's most wicked passage, Johnson imagines how the backlash against printed matter might have sounded if video games had come first. Reading is "tragically isolating," Johnson half-jokes. Books understimulate the senses with their "barren string of words on the page" and "fixed linear path" that resist interactive manipulation by the reader.

It's a fun and revelatory thrust, but Johnson wrecks his momentum by swinging too far in the other direction. He seems blind to anything but the rosiest consequences of parking our butts in dark rooms. About the ultra-violence in games like Grand Theft Auto, Johnson says, in effect, "Don't worry." Game content, he argues, is less important than the "collateral learning" that takes place while we're playing. As pop-culture offerings "complexify" (his word), we're getting better at learning how to learn. Johnson never addresses the collateral damage. For example, while Tetris was complexifying my mind, the rest of me was increasifying. Everything Bad Is Good For You contains not a single word about fresh-air alternatives such as scaling a mountain, sketching a portrait or fixing an engine.

Johnson's thesis hinges on the assumption that Americans have gotten smarter. This neglects mounting evidence to the contrary: squeeze yogurt, HMOs, tax breaks for Hummer buyers, routine circumcision, Ashton Kutcher, the National Hockey League. Johnson cites IQ scores, which have been rising three points per decade. For the sake of argument, let's agree that Americans are truly becoming brainiacs. Why credit computer games? Why not the decline in cigarette smoking, or the spreading popularity of yoga, or the higher incidence of interbreeding with more evolved beings from the Planet Zymbzoz?

Okay, that last example is far-fetched. But so is Johnson's assertion that the slack-jawed state that children fall into when mesmerized by the boob tube is a good thing. It's not that they're zombies, he writes. They're simply "focused." So the next time there's a grease fire raging out of control in the kitchen and Kid Sister is so "focused" on Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! that she doesn't react to the smoke, it might be because she's too busy piling up IQ points to run for her life.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Johnson does come up with the kind of observations interesting enough to regale your friends with, though none of them is central to his point. He notes that in this age of ostensible instant gratification, the best-selling video games are the ones that take the most work to master, and they're popular with young men, a demographic traditionally known for slacking. He says that today's TV shows needed to complexify (okay, I give up) because lucrative DVD sales and cable syndication deals demand programming that stands up to repeat viewings. He claims that popular shows like "24" have borrowed from the best video games, offering little context and requiring viewers to figure out the rules and the relationships between the characters on the fly.

Johnson laments that the positive mental impact of pop culture hasn't been extensively studied, and he's right that we should question our snobby suppositions. But he never convinced me that pop culture is responsible for a more intelligent America. After all, decades before the embarrassingly primitive Tetris, my mother was "focused" on video that offered multiple story threads and shifting interpersonal relationships. Her complexified cognitive workout? "As the World Turns." *

Bob Ivry has written for Esquire, Popular Science, Maxim, Spin, Details and Self.