Everything Bad Is Good for You

Everything Bad Is Good for You

Infobox Book
name = Everything Bad Is Good for You
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Everything Bad Is Good for You Cover
author = Steven Berlin Johnson
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country =
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Social Comment
publisher = Riverhead
pub_date = May 2005
english_pub_date =
media_type =
pages = 272
isbn = 9781594481949
oclc =
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" is a book by Steven Berlin Johnson. 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.


Johnson states, "This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing: that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years." [cite book |last= Johnson |first=Steven |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title= Everything Bad is Good for You|origdate= |origyear=2005 |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year= |month= |publisher=Riverhead |location= |language= |isbn= 978-1594481949|oclc= |doi= |id= |pages= |chapter= |chapterurl= |quote= , xv]

The Sleeper Curve

Johnson derives the term "Sleeper Curve" from the Woody Allen film "Sleeper" in order to draw a comparison between the "scientists from 2173 [who] are astounded that twentieth-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge" and the current perception that popular culture is "locked in a spiral drive of deteriorating standards". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", xvi] The Sleeper Curve serves to "undermine the belief that . . . pop culture is on a race to the bottom, where the cheapest thrill wins out every time", and is instead "getting more mentally challenging as the medium evolves". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 132-133]

Johnson is quick to point out that by no means does the Sleeper Curve imply that popular culture has become superior to traditional culture: what "the Sleeper Curve undermines is not the premise that mass culture pales in comparison to High Art in its aesthetic and intellectual riches". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 132]

Form as opposed to content

Johnson argues that the appeal of video games is not through their (possibly violent or sexual) content, but rather through the fact that the "structure" of the video games stimulates the reward centers of the brain. He first explains how the brain chemicals function: "a strong case can be made that the power of games to captivate involves their ability to tap into the brain's natural reward circuitry. . . . The brain's natural painkillers, the opioids, are the brain's pure pleasure drugs, while the reward system revolves around the neurotransmitter dopamine interacting with specific receptors in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 34] To clarify this, Johnson explains that the "dopamine system is a kind of accountant: disappointment and cravings are triggered by lower dopamine levels when rewards don't arrive as expected". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 34]

Then, he establishes the connection between brain chemistry and the physics of a virtual world: "If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you'll find human brains drawn to those systems, even if they're made up of virtual characters and simulated sidewalks. It's not the subject matter of these games that attracts – if that were the case, you'd never see twenty-somethings following absurd rescue-the-princess storylines like the best selling Zelda series on the Nintendo platform. It's the reward system that draws those players in, and keeps their famously short attention spans locked on the screen. No other form of entertainment offers that cocktail of reward and exploration". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 38]

In other words, Johnson claims that the environment inherent to video games stimulates our brains to produce opioids and reward the player unlike any other form of entertainment. Thus, this strengthens his arguments that we need to evaluate the "form" of video games, rather than the content because there is an implication that something more complex is involved. Rather, he argues that the beneficial elements of video games and television arise from their format.

Television and film

In television, Johnson contrasts older shows like "Dragnet" to modern shows like "The Sopranos". He asserts that the storyline complexity has increased dramatically, and even the best shows from 20 years ago would be regarded as quite primitive were they to air today.

Johnson introduces the concept of the Autism Quotient or the capacity a person has for determining and understanding the interpersonal connections between people insofar as their emotional intelligence will allow them. This is determined by how low the score is; the lower the AQ score the higher the ability to determine these interpersonal connections. He writes, "People with low AQ scores are particularly talented at reading emotional cues, anticipating the inner thoughts and feelings of other people, a skill that is sometimes called mind reading...Television turns out to be a brilliant medium for assessing other people's emotional intelligence or AQ—a property that is too often ignored when critics evaluate the medium's carrying capacity for thoughtful content". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 98–99] So, insofar as television programming can be said to be a vehicle for cognitive content, the Autism Quotient must be taken into account, at least according to Johnson.

Johnson also discusses social networks – groups or classes of people linked in intertwined relationships, such as a family, a group of friends, coworkers, or any set of people with a continual and substantive interaction. He writes, "Where media is concerned, this type of analysis is not adequately illustrated by narrative threads or a simple list of characters. It is better visualized as a network: a series of points connected by lines of affiliation. When we watch most reality shows, we are implicitly building these social network maps in our heads, a map not so much of plotlines as of attitudes: Nick has a thing for Amy, but Amy may just be using Nick; Bill and Kwame have a competitive friendship". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 108] Because everyday human social interactions are more complex than a linear series of events, Johnson argues that they must be visualized, even in television programming, as a web of interconnected lines in reference to all occurring social interaction.

In film, Johnson highlights the recent trend of mind-bending films: "Memento", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and "Pulp Fiction". He argues these films have become popular despite their use of avant-garde techniques, which normally would restrict their accessibility and economic viability. The popularization of narrative experimentation in these films works to further Johnson's main thesis, which highlights an increase in complexity and viewer involvement throughout mass culture in the last twenty years.

Multiple threading

Prior to "multiple threading", television episodes contained one or two main characters and one storyline. With the additional "collection of distinct strands" to the episodes, the public became willing "to tolerate more complicated narratives". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 67, 72] This allowed the audiences to comprehend more storylines and characters as well as linking different episodes, improving their cognitive skills. In television shows like "The Sopranos" multiple threading is a common tactic used to provide information to the audience in an interesting way. Johnson explains, "The narrative weaves together a collection of distinct strands-sometimes as many as ten, though at least half of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 67] He believes that due to the rising technology in pop culture the audience is conditioned to comprehend the increasingly difficult plots developed with multiple threading. Essentially, then, Johnson's theory of "multiple threading" is based on the increase of narrative complexity through time.

Flashing arrows

Another term Johnson uses to describe the rising difficulty in television storylines is the disappearance of the "flashing arrow".Flashing arrows act as "a narrative signpost, planted conveniently to help the audience keep track of what is going on". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 73] For example, in typical slasher films, the audience knows that leaving a door unlocked leads to "unwanted visitors". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 74] The unlocked door acts as a flashing arrow. In recent years, there has been a shift in reducing the number of flashing arrows causing "the cognitive labor you are forced to do filling in the details". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 77] Television shows based in a hospital do not take the time to explain every medical term used; the audience is expected to grasp their meaning through context. In recent years television shows, the reduction of flashing arrows leaves the audience to discover plot twists for themselves.

Johnson discusses substance and texture and the way they are used to create a "reality effect": "substance" is all of the subtle, and sometimes obvious, clues that tell the audience what is happening in the show in a more direct way. For example, "When a sci-fi script inserts a non-scientist into some advanced lab who keeps asking the science geeks to explain what they're doing with that particle accelerator – that's a flashing arrow that gives the audience precisely the information they need to know in order to make sense of the plot." [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 73] "Substance is the material planted amid the background texture that the viewer needs to make sense of the plot." [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 78]

"'Texture' is all the arcane verbiage provided to convince the viewer that they're watching Actual Doctors At Work". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 78] Texture is what is used to make the substance more believable. For instance, in "Grey's Anatomy", texture is the complicated medical jargon the actors use. Viewers are not expected to completely understand the language but it is needed to authenticate the plot.

"…"Reality effects" are designed to create the aura of real life through their sheer meaninglessness: the barometer doesn't play a role in the narrative, and it doesn't symbolize anything. It's just there for background texture, to create the illusion of a world cluttered with objects that have no narrative or symbolic meaning…you don't need to know what it means when the surgeons start shouting about OPCAB and saphenous veins as they perform a bypass on "ER". [Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good for You", 78] The reality effects are created in concery with the texture to give the show more reliability; they enforce the believability of images as well as verbiage.


Some criticswho of Johnson's analysis argue that his perceived support of unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism diminishes the overall poignancy of his argument. In the February 2006 afterword to the paperback edition of the book, Johnson responds to these arguments with an admission of love for the spread and evolution of technology rather than open market systems. He furthers his stance by stating free market capitalism, in combination with mass communication advances in the 20th century, led to less challenging entertainment and a mired popular culture in comparison to our present high-tech, open-source society.


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