In case you hadn’t noticed, the latest “it” book from pop academia is Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You. I haven’t read it, but it’s been paraphrased by so many sources–from Wired to NPR–that I feel like I have. In essence, Johnson argues that America’s largely unexplained rise in mean and median IQ scores over the last 20 years is due in part to two increasingly complex components of pop culture: TV and video games.
In essence, as video games have evolved from Pitfall to HALO, and TV has evolved from The Dukes of Hazzard to The Sopranos, American society has grown accustomed to absorbing, analyzing, and appreciating more complex entertainment, which in turn has boosted IQ scores. While we may not be enjoying more aesthetically advanced entertainment, it’s doubtful one could argue that even as gimmicky a show as Desperate Housewives isn’t more complex and challenging than its early 1980s ratings counterpart, Dallas.
Trying to keep track of intentionally complex and largely unexplained social connections, motivations, and interactions is a form of problem solving never demanded by CHIPs, and that’s a good thing. One need look no further than a comparison between the old Battlestar Galactica and the new Battlestar Galactica to see how far we’ve come.
The “new complexity” argument is also boosted by video games, which were largely absent a generation ago, and are ubiquitous now. The increasing intellectual complexity on the video game front is a subject for debate–I would say Tetris is among the more intriguing games ever devised, and it’s hardly cutting edge–but I will concede that far more people have played and are playing Tetris than ever idly sat down to a game of chess or checkers 20 years ago, and that has to be a good thing.
My twofold response to this observation?
Duh! and You have it backwards.
Of course American culture is getting smarter. We’ve been emphasizing education for at least three generations, and the dissemination and diversification of available media in that same time period has only helped. Cable TV and the Internet mean that dinosaur enthusiasts (and on some level, that’s all of us) can learn about a plesiosaur pretty much whenever we want, in whatever medium we want, more or less on demand–rather than endure a pedantic public television show on the subject once or twice a year. That has to help IQ scores, if only by virtue of variety and opportunity.
Moreover, I’d argue that the increasing complexity of TV and video games is a reflection of a smarter culture, not its cause. Since we’ve moved from three TV networks to 300, mostly gone are the days when TV execs had to program banal, formulaic shows to appease at least one out of every three Americans. With competition has come a demand for variety, which has forced networks to resort (reluctantly) to quality and intelligence to attract the valuable smart-affluent audience that advertisers crave. In terms of story structure, TV shows can’t afford not to push the envelope. In fact, after reading about the new upfronts for fall television premieres–and their notable lack of sitcoms and abundance of supernatural/sci-fi dramas–one is quite convinced that dumb and funny is trending down, while complicated and strange are on the way up.
In short, TV and video games can make you smarter, based on what you watch and play. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean TV and video games are unqualified boons to society. Complex story structure doesn’t necessarily imply laudable story content.
Grand Theft Auto may be one of the most ingeniously designed and developed games ever, and it requires a great deal of problem solving to succeed within, but the subject matter is indisputably vile. One of my favorite shows, HBO’s Deadwood, employs dizzyingly complex plots and character interactions, but the language, violence, and sexual content make even The Sopranos seem tame.
The maturation of entertainment is a two-edged sword.