There is a general consensus in this country that the culture today is getting dumber. We text on our phones, play too many video games and watch too much TV. Our minds are being numbed and are melting because we do nothing but stare at screens all the time. I agreed with this consensus until I read “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson. The book talks about how our minds are working harder than ever to make us think more than past generations ever used to.
For television, Johnson describes how shows in the past were extremely predictable and how the plots followed the same formulaic patterns over and over again. For example, he compares the shows “Dallas” and “24” (for those of you who don’t know — “Dallas” was a kind of soap opera set in Dallas, Texas that followed the lives of rich oil millionaires back in the 1980s). He describes how “Dallas” asked you to follow six main characters and chart their social network in order to make sense of the show (who kissed who, who knew who, who flirted with who). Now, in the show “24,” you have to follow the plot line of 31 separate characters with countless relationships and social interactions in order to make sense of what happens in just one episode! The mental activity involved in that kind of cataloguing is, Johnson says, a type of intelligence that we as a generation today exhibit better than generations before.
In discussing video games, Johnson talks about how the top-selling ones are games that you can play for hours on end with a multitude of ever-changing complexity. “Age of Empires,” “The Sims” and “Grand Theft Auto” have no “fixed narrative path.” Video gamers today have to figure out what is going on in the game as they progress through it. He talks about the mental labor of managing and keeping track of all the simultaneous tasks. Johnson writes, “You can’t progress far in a game if you simply deal with the puzzles you stumble across; you have to coordinate them with the ultimate objectives on the horizon.” The talented minds of today have mastered this ability to keep the wide spectrum of objectives fresh in their heads simultaneously in order to complete the game.
In “Everything Bad is Good for You,” Johnson says there is an interesting phenomenon at play called the Flynn effect. It is the observation that over the past 75 years, IQ scores have been increasing at an astonishing rate. When looking at other tests like the SAT, those scores have not increased at the same rate over the same time period. The logical step is to say that if schools are not accounting for the rise in IQ scores, popular culture must be. We are watching more complicated television shows, playing more advanced video games and keeping track of the social networks and puzzles that go along with them.
So keep playing “Call of Duty”! Keep watching “Breaking Bad”! Because apparently, we are getting smarter.