May 22, 2005

TV Makes You?

I'm never believed that television makes you dumb, and I suppose that means I'm outside of the target audience for Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. And indeed, this is actually not a reaction to the book, but a reaction to his talk , his NYT Magazine article and the various other media floating around the book launch. If you want the hollywood version of this reaction, lets just say seeing Johnson talk did not make me want to buy the book...

I've never bought the television makes you dumb argument, because I've never seen any evidence about, just knee jerk reactions. Johnson to his credit never falls into this trap, he's got a load of charts and figures to push his point. And indeed he's got a load of evidence that television plots are far more complex then they where 20 or 30 years ago. But does all this make us smarter? Shit, we are back to that same no evidence situation that the tv=dumb have, aren't we. What Johnson has is not evidence that we are smarter, but evidence that people are better at watching TV then they used to be.

So we can watch more complicated TV shows, big fucking deal. It's not that surprising given that most people in America have grown up with TV, the screens are bigger, the audio better, there are no more rabbit years to adjust, the reception is almost always flawless, the competition higher, etc, etc. If we weren't watching more complex TV shows something would be wrong. But is there any proven cause and effect between complex TV show viewing and intelligence? Well that's a bit too much to prove in a polemic isn't it?

Ultimately metricizing intelligence is an unsolved and perhaps unsolvable task. Johnson seems to make an assumption that very specific instances of increased complexity translate into a broader intelligence, which strikes me as a wrong approach. And if my memory of the talk is right he also makes claims that the sort of thinking watching complex tv requires is the same as what makes us do well on certain tests. Which doesn't solve much, the ability of test scores to measure anything but an ability to do well on a particular type of test is a wide open question.

Stripped of the "smarter/dumber" argument I think Johnson touches on something very interesting, the vector of transformation in television. But ironically much like the cultural critics who the book is written in opposition to, there is a huge disconnect in between the analysis of what happens on TV and what happens to people. Without causality, all we have is vacant speculation...

Posted by Abe at May 22, 2005 09:57 PM


The most brilliant television show is still easier to watch than reading the most simple novel. Complexity? Try listening to a 4 hour story, narrated, & remembering it -- preferrably, say, for example, that of the The Raven from the Pacific Northwest, wherein nonlinear timelines coincide in telling the coming of the world and humanity from Raven's tricksterity, and the blending of good and evil in the one. Television requires little attention: it's not that it makes one stupid or smart. It just instills a reactionary rather than participatory system of affect that produces dumb knowledge. tV

Johnson argument is squared exactly at that sort of thinking, not saying he's right but to make that sort of argument now at least requires addressing his arguments. I don't really buy either..

Remember that Johnson is not just your average tech journalist, he did an MA at Columbia with Said and Spivak and his undergrad at the Brown semiotics dept. He knows the classic academic arguments against TV damn well and this book is aimed squarely at them. In other words tobias, you are the target market and that argument above needs to be updated with a response to Johnson in order to be considered valid..

Hello. I read a glowing review for this book on Steven Shaviro's blog, and what he cited as its good points also elicited the "WTF" response from me. And I once respected him (well I still do, for some things I guess). What I would regard as 'intelligent TV' would be something that invites the audience to THINK. Preferably about something relevant to their or someone else's life. Is this a hopelessly outdated opinion these days?
I trace this line of thinking to the 'medium is the message' McLuhanish repetition now used by baby boomer 'Pop-ist' academics as a way to avoid confronting the ideology of the message. Because there is one.