Book review: Everything Bad is Good for You

Book Reviews

Johnny's reviews of great UX books.

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“Every Thing Bad Is Good For You” is the title of the book Steven Johnson wrote in 2005. In this book he claims that “Against popular belief, pop culture is actually making us smarter”. And he explains this theory by using the term “The Sleeper Cuve” derived from the movie Sleeper by Woody Allan.

Johnson writes how TV shows have evolved from shows like Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch with a single plot line per episode to shows like The Sopranos and Lost with multiple plot lines intersecting and over 21 episodes. These new shows are challenging us to remember and connect multiple relationships over an entire season instead of just one show. This complexity was unthinkable 20 years ago. But in today’s society its different for we have been secretly trained to accept this complexity for the last decade. This is the Sleeper curve hard at work.

For decades we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steady declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.

Complex games
Another fascinating thing which struck by me in this book is the way computer games influence us and affect our daily lives. Like popular TV computer games have become more complex for the last 20 years. Where Tetris and Donkey Kong require little time to “get”, we now have Grand Theft Auto IV and Medal of Honor. These games can be maddingly hard and present us with a lot more freedom and complexity then those early games. Computer games have been flexing our mental muscle for the last two decades which in turn has been helping us see the world a bit clearer.

Tetris for example trains our pattern recognition skills, while Sim City teaches us about the way economics work. Games in general help us with decision making and the way we analyze and solve problems.

Visual recognition
The book descibes a study at the University of Rochester where subjects were asked to perform a series of quick visual recognition tests like picking the color of a letter or counting the number of objects on a screen. The results showed that regular games consistantly outpreformed the non-gamer group, that the gamers turned out to be more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively.

We as a culture are increasingly demanding more complexity and more intelectual challanges. We’ve grown to expect a certain “toughness” in the games we play and the things we watch on TV. We’re actively fostering a new generation of problem solvers, smarter, faster and more capable of filtering massive amounts of information, putting a strain on the way we develop new things. Creating a sort of “more-cleverer-then-thou” kind of culture among the designers and creative people alike. Always trying to one-up the competition with a newer snazzier way of doing things. How are we going to keep this up?

Top photo by: Jay Dugger

Martijn Gorree

I work as a Mad Scientist at Fabrique doing all sorts of evil experiments with code and brains.

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