The Tome in question: "Everything bad is good for you: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually making us smarter" by Steven Johnson. By the very act of writing this review on the internet, it would seem like I am preaching to the converted about this book. Most people who read this blog, or use the internet in general, know that instead of popular culture becoming simpler to accommodate a mentally subjugated throng of video game zombies, it is doing the exact opposite, becoming faster, denser, and more complex to serve a population with growing minds and little patience for the pabulum of the lowest common denominator. The variety of media, as well as the speed of it is increasing at a pace that few feel they can keep up. If you are able to cope, it certainly is a credit to your mental capacity. But that is not the kicker of this book.
What Steven Johnson offers us is a new way of analysing media, and in particular, successful forms of media. I’d like to make it clear at this point that I don’t argue with success in media. Any mouth-breathing simpleton with a keyboard can give you a phlegm induced tirade about Britney Spears can’t sing and Luke Skywalker sucks runny eggs, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about media or the criticism thereof. It’s like yelling at the constellation of Orion and calling it astrophysics. While it may be true that reality tv sucks, it’s much more important to know why it’s successful enough to complain about, which "Everything Bad" explains, along with modern films and video games.
According to the book the reason reality tv is so successful is not visceral thrill of watching people embarrass themselves, but the system of group dynamics that forms as soon as you get all of these strangers together. Shows like "The Apprentice" and "Survivor", gain staying power from the complex system of alliances and rivalries that viewers would discuss at length at the watercooler, in the carpool, on-line or when they are making their bets with the bookie of the office pool. The reactions and facial expressions of the contestants (albeit with a little creative editing) add to the mountain of clues people will sift through to predict the next episode.
This kind of complexity is showing up increasingly in scripted shows as well, considering the success of such shows as "24", "The Sopranos", and "Lost". Gantt charts comparing "Dragnet", "Hill Street Blues" and "The Sopranos" demonstrated the increasing number of plotlines going on in your average drama. Networks had previously wanted to keep storylines as simple as possible, but with the advance of syndication, DVD, and personal video recorders, these shows now had to keep viewer’s interest after multiple viewings.
So when you’re creating the next television show, video game or movie, it’s a good bet that complexity will help, rather than hinder your efforts in making an effective piece of media. This book gives a top-down perspective on how much media has changed in the past 50 years with a few hints on where it’s going. It also reminded me that one of these days I do need to read the works of Marshall Mcluhan.