Bestselling author of Mind Wide Open, The Ghost Map, he writes for Discover magazine, is a contributing editor for Wired magazine, writes for Slate and the New York Times. He also has a new book out called Invention of Air. In the book, Johnson claims that popular culture – and in particular television shows and video games – has grown more complex and demanding over time and is making us smarter. He coins a term for this:
The Sleeper Curve is a trend in the background, one that we don’t really think about or acknowledge…in popular culture which is moving us toward more complexity in terms of media and entertainment. This is what people think about popular culture today…that it’s “unhealthy” for you. But the author suggests that it’s a case similar to this scene in Sleeper, where contrary to today’s cultural authorities, popular culture is actually healthy for us.
George Will is a conservative columnist and kinda vanguard of American culture. This quote is so him, in terms of style and substance. This is the prevailing notion of today’s popular culture
Rebuttal from the author. He challenges us to look at culture, not from a values perspective, not from a moral perspective, but in terms of the trends in cognitive challenges and complexities over the last 30 years.
We think of video games as just a hobby…something to zone out in front of. Games have gotten exceedingly complex in both form and content…and when we see gamers, they’re not zoned out…they’re zoned in….concentrating, thinking. Take a look at the games of earlier days…
These are the macro objectives of the game…the content of the game is a simple “rescue the princess” game. What’s interesting is the kind of thinking that you have to do in order to rescue the princess…much more complicated than what Pac-Man is. Now let’s just take a look at one of these macro objectives:
In the book, the author writes a lot more of these objectives, to illustrate his point, but I’m lazy. These objectives are impressive and much more complex than Pac-Man, but here’s what’s really interesting: People play this game on the fly…when was the last time you saw a gamer read an instruction booklet before playing the game? You have to figure out what to do. You slowly learn the norms of the game by exploring. Remember, this kids are taking a telescoping look at this game, keeping both these mini objectives in the front of their mind while keeping at the same time the macro objectives too. Very complicated nest of objectives, similar to the kind of thinking we have to do in the real world. We think about our lives in a series of nested objectives. Example of our nested objectives This is NOT the kind of thinking that can be gained simply by reading a traditional narrative…but video games do this intuitively.
Johnson says that television and movies have also gotten more complex over the years…training viewers to keep track of multiple social relationships, histories, etc. He compares two TV shows to illustrate his point.
Since book came out, there is a show that really combines a lot of the elements of the author’s Sleeper Curve. Lost is the real sleeper curve entertainment of our time, in terms of television. Immensely complicate show, dozens of characters…it reinvented storytelling rules, with its complicated temporal structure. Lost is especially good because there is a control study, where you can monitor the changes over time, because Lost is basically a show about a group of survivors on a semi deserted island…and TV did this once before.
Lost is interesting because it does have these macro issues that need to be figured out, and it requires its viewers to zoom in and out of the narrative to solve the mysteries. Lost is built so complex that it demands engagement…thereby taking a non-interactive form, a passive form, like television, and turning it into a very interactive form…pretty much requiring viewers to engage in the show, by watching episodes over and over again to gain new insight and to theorize on the mysteries. Lost is just like a video game in the way that it’s structured.
Johnson admits that it’s unfair to pit a show like The West Wing up against a show like the Love Boat…that you can’t take the best of one generation against the worst of another. But if you compare two shows from different generations of similar complexity and quality, you start to see that everything rises, even the bottom. He says that the junk has improved. A mistake that cultural critics and authorities made when reality programming first aired was to compare it to documentaries…but when you compare them to what they really are—game shows…the increase is complexity becomes clearer. Contestants on a show like Survivor or The Apprentice know the general objectives of the series, but each episode involves new challenges that haven’t been ordained in advance. This is a new and different beast than the game shows of yore…where the format never changed.
With the Internet, Johnson talks about two changes in particular: the evolution of PARTICIPATION and the evolution of INTERFACE. In terms of interface, the Internet has made tremendous strides, just within the few short years it’s become available to us.
With radio…you turn the dials and you get programmed content that you can listen to. With tv…you turn the dials and you get programmed content that you can listen to and also see. The interface in both radio and tv were pretty rudimentary by today’s standards…but to go from radio to tv took 30 years…and it was a big deal when tv was introduced. With the Internet…
The early years of Yahoo! Plain text…blue text..some pictures…not much else.
But then just a few short years later, and you get this: Lots of pictures, sound, video…all right there. And there was no huge worldwide training that needed to be done…it was like there was no big deal.
Now, not only can you use the Internet to watch programmed content, but teenagers are also creating their own content.
Websites like YouTube have been a creative boon to people everywhere, especially youngsters. Content creating sites like YouTube allow users to interact directly with their interface…you can rate and comment on things…you can post videos…and there was no real formal training involved in this…no big deal made. Definitely Interface has increased dramatically…but so has Participation. Users actively participate in online discussions, join groups, communicate and participate with each other. The author also talks about a phenomena that he discovered…one in which his Sleeper Curve tries to explain.
Late 1970’s, philosopher and civil rights activist James Flynn These scores and the quick raise in IQ levels Flynn found were found to have nothing to do with culture, demographics, economics or genetics…it was generational. Around the 80’s and 90’s, IQ tests were moving from information intelligence, which reflect educational background (culturally biased) and more towards tests that measure fluid intelligence…intelligence in recognizing patterns and completing sequences…like in this one:
Fill in the blank space with the correct shape from the 8 options below. Tests like the Raven intend to be free from cultural bias. It is better to ask people to mentally rotate rectangles in their heads than it is to ask them to analyze a paragraph about the Founding Fathers. This worked, because for a while there were no cultural groups that placed an inordinate emphasis on mentally rotating rectangles. But then a few years ago, that changed. A new group appeared that compulsively rotated rectangles all the time. This group didn’t fit in any racial or economic divisions, they weren’t prep school kids or urban underclass. They were kids who played Tetris.
Why does it seem like our kids aren’t as smart? Why are the so-called cultural gatekeepers continuing to admonish popular culture in the forms of Internet, Television, and Video Games? Well…Johnson says, it’s because we’re not testing the things that they’re learning. These skills that kids are learning… Social Intelligence of keeping track of relationships and picking up on non-verbal cues… Recognizing patterns… Parsing the relevant information from the non-relevant Contributing to and creating content…These are not a part of school standardized tests. But should they be?
Screen shot from World of Warcraft To many, this would be incomprehensible…to a gamer, this makes total sense. Gamers today are learning to parse the valuable or relevant information from the irrelevant.
Book report: Everything Bad is Good For You
EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter By: Steven Johnson
THE SLEEPER CURVE Scientist A: Has he asked for anything special? Scientist B: Yes, why, for breakfast…he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk.” Scientist A: Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties. Scientist B: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or … hot fudge? Scientist A: Those were thought to be unhealthy… --From Woody Allen’s Sleeper
"OURS IS AN AGE BESOTTED WITH GRAPHIC ENTERTAINMENT. AND IN AN INCREASINGLY INFANTILIZED SOCIETY, WHOSE MORAL PHILOSOPHY IS REDUCIBLE TO A CELEBRATION OF 'CHOICE,' ADULTS ARE DECREASINGLY DISTINGUISHABLE FROM CHILDREN IN THEIR ABSORPTION IN ENTERTAINMENTS AND THE KINDS OF ENTERTAINMENTS THEY ARE ABSORBED IN--VIDEO GAMES, COMPUTER GAMES, HAND-HELD GAMES, MOVIES ON THEIR COMPUTERS AND SO ON. THIS IS PROGRESS: MORE SOPHISTICATED DELIVERY OF STUPIDITY.” <ul><li>Quote from George Will </li></ul>
“ Contrary to what our ‘cultural authorities’ are saying, today's popular culture is becoming more complex, in terms of content of cognition, content of interface, and content of participation.”
PAC-MAN <ul><li>Your immediate goal is to complete the current maze. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must move the joystick through the maze and avoid the monsters. </li></ul><ul><li>You may also clear the board of monsters by eating large pellets. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>You may also eat the fruit for bonus points. </li></ul></ul>
LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WALKER <ul><li>Your ultimate goal is to rescue your sister. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must defeat the villain Ganon. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you need to obtain legendary weapons. </li></ul><ul><li>To locate the weapons, you need the pearl of Din. </li></ul><ul><li>To get the pearl of Din, you need to cross the ocean. </li></ul><ul><li>To cross the ocean, you need to find a sailboat. </li></ul><ul><li>To do all the above, you need to stay alive and healthy. </li></ul><ul><li>To do all the above, you need to move the controller. </li></ul>
TO LOCATE THE PEARL OF DIN <ul><li>To locate the items, you need the pearl of Din from the islanders. </li></ul><ul><li>To get this, you need to help them solve their problem. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you need to cheer up the Prince. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you need to get a letter from the girl. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you need to find the girl in the village. </li></ul><ul><li>With the letter to the Prince, you must now befriend the Prince. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you need to get to the top of the Dragon Roost Mt. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must get to the other side of the gorge. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must fill up the gorge with water so you can swim across. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must use a bomb to blow up the rock blocking water. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must make the bomb plant grow. </li></ul><ul><li>To do this, you must collect water in a jar that the girl gave you </li></ul>
THE MYSTERIES OF LOST <ul><li>Ontological: Are they even alive? Is it all a hallucination? </li></ul><ul><li>Formal: Are supernatural events allowed in this world? </li></ul><ul><li>Mathematical: What do “the numbers” mean? </li></ul><ul><li>Historical: Why has the SOS tape been running for sixteen years? </li></ul><ul><li>Geographical: Where is the island? </li></ul><ul><li>Biographical: What happened between Jack and Kate? </li></ul>
APPLES TO APPLES / LEMONS TO LEMONS http://www.mediaman.com.au/profiles/the_apprentice.jpg http://media.photobucket.com/image/the%20newlywed%20game/staunchusa/the-newlywed-game-logo.jpg
THE FLYNN EFFECT <ul><li>American philosopher and civil rights activist </li></ul><ul><li>Sought to dispute apparent IQ gap between blacks and whites </li></ul><ul><li>Found military records that showed test scores of blacks were rising fast—but so were the scores of whites </li></ul><ul><li>Discovered that the tests were getting harder over time </li></ul><ul><li>IQ scores were rising dramatically, over generations </li></ul>