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Talk: Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You

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Steven Johnson gave a talk at Books Inc. in Mountain View in order to promote his new book, Everything Bad is Good for You. (a shortened version of his Apple Store Talk for those who saw that).

His stated purpose for the talk/book is that is an attempt to talk on conventional wisdom that things have gotten worse, that newer media (TV/video games) appeal to the lowest common denominator. It is a "contrarian but honest argument" that looks, not at the content, but at the cognitive complexity of these media (# of characters, plots, etc...)

I've transcribed my notes into the extended entry. Before the jump you can checked out kottke's review or Gladwell's review (the kottke review includes some links to other resources). Or, you go straight to the source, Steven Johnson's blog, where he's be reviewing the reviewers, posting his schedule, and whatnot.

Finally, you can read Watching TV Makes You Smarter, which Johnson wrote for the New York Times Magazine and pretty much summarizes the arguments in his talk/book.

DISCLAIMER: nothing here should be taken as quote from Johnson. These notes are my attempts to paraphrase/understand what Johnson said and is likely to be fraught with error.

The talk started off with Johnson displaying a photo of his ideal reader:


The convention wisdom that he is attacking in this book is summarized in this quote by George Will [note: it would seem that one could start an entire cottage industry refuting George Will's pompous idiocy]:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice,'' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in--video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity. (George Will column)

Johnson was motivated to write this book after an incident that occurred while he was showing Simcity to his nephew. After showing his nephew various aspects of the game for 20 minutes, he noted that one of his industrial regions wasn't doing very well. His nephew noted, "I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates." Johnson thought about if this was a class at school and how his nephew would be bored to tears with this sort of material, but this game was able to quickly convey its underlying mechanics and attract the problem-solving interest.

Johnson then showed a video called "How to Use the Dial Telephone," which was an old Bell how-to video trying to educate people on how to use the 'new' dial telephones. It was a painful lesson in repetitive narrative: three scenes in a row reminding people to not use the new directories until May 29, followed by three interpretations of the looking up a phone number in a directory (one w/ cartoon person, two with an actual person looking at a directory). [I didn't full get the purpose of showing this clip, other than entertainment]

Sleeper Curve

Johnson's argument starts off with this notion of a Sleeper Curve. In the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, he awakens in the future to find that they are amused he is asking for organic food and other 'health' products -- didn't he know that those were bad for him (cheeseburgers are much healthier).

Johnson's reinterpretation of this movie reference is that there is a trend towards increased cognitive complexity in movies and video games.

Video games

As evidence for this, he showed, not SimCity, but ESPN baseball, which, as a sports simulation, falls into the popular perception as games for "manually dextrous idiots." In addition to the basic hit-the-ball gameplay, there is a GM mode with goals for hitting profit/spending/hitting goals, keeping players happy, and adjusting salary expeditures. There is also an Owner Menu where you have to manage the mood of the owner (Steinbrenner).

Johnson calls this "telescopic thinking": taking multiple objectives at multiple levels (short, medium, long), where you are thinking and learning simultaneously.

Two more comparisons: * Pac-Man: eat pellets, avoid monsters, try to get fruit * Zelda: long/medium/short term goals -- rescue sister, defeat ganon, get legendary weapons, get the pearl, beat the dungeon, get money, stay alive (partial list). Each of these goals breaks down into a dense hierarchy of subgoals (to get the pearl you have to get the key, to get the key you have to get the map, to get the map you have to). There's no place in the game were these steps are outlined -- gamer has to figure it out while playing.

Video games are not just about hand/eye coordination.


Johnson notes that today's kids would be bored by formulaic shows like Three's Company and The Cosby Show. Today's shows are much more complex.

He's not arguing that today's TV shows are as challenging as reading Middlemarch, but rather, he's arguing that the thirty-year trend is that TV shows are getting more complex. Also, in the 1970s kids weren't spending their time reading Flaubert -- they were watching shows like the Dukes of Hazzard.

Johnson showed a bunch of graphs from various shows (Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, Hill Street Blues, Soporanos) that visualized the number of plots in a single episode of the show. I'm not going to reproduce the graphs here, but the salient points were: * Dragnet: single plot through the whole show * Starsky and Hutch: innovated by introducing a "joke subplot" -- a joke would start off and conclude each episode. * Hill Street Blues: borrowing from the soap opera/Dallas genre, it introduced many subplots (~8-9). It was the most complicated show at its time -- critics loved it, flopped with audiences who found it too confusing. NBC had to do a press release that they had simplified the show for viewers. * Sopranos (same audience size as Hill Street): 8-10 subplots, with nearly all of those subplots referencing previous episode (the Hill Street Blues episode only had two subplots that referenced previous episodes).

After the #-of-plots visualizations, Johnson then did a quick display showing the social networks that one has to understand in an episode (as another measure of show complexity). He argued that as a species we model social networks wells. Social interaction ability is a predictor of success in society.

He showed a graph for a Dallas episode (Black Market Baby) followed by a graph for an episode of 24. It's hard to describe these graphs (he said that he might put them online), but the basic gist is that the 24 graph is much more complicated, with a number of character interactions approaching/equalling a novel like Middlemarch. The 24 episode also had a mole plot that increased the complexity.

Why is this happening?

Johnson broke down various reasons why this "Sleeper Curve" trend in TV and video games was occurring.

The first reason relates to the shifting ways that TV content is distributed/viewed: VCR, syndication, DVD, TiVo, on demand, BitTorrent. We are increasingly able to rewind and repeat TV shows, rather than just having to consume it live. This has created an economic incentive for TV producers to create shows that can sustain multiple viewings. Seinfeld, for example, has had tremendous profits from its syndication. Johnson and his son have watched Finding Nemo a hundred times, and the first fifty times at least were rewarding in terms of finding something new.

Another reason is the rise meta-commentary: "para-sites", blogs, FAQs, fan sites, walkthroughs, commentary tracks. These provide an outlet for fandom and a means to explore the increased complexity.

The walkthrough for Grand Theft Auto is 53,000 words -- longer than Everything Bad is Good For You.

Summary and Q+A

Johnson's hope is that the book will undo the assumption of the slacker brain, that we are attracted to the quickest fix/immediate gratification. If that were true, there would be competition for the world's easiest video game.

Q: The development of the novel came much after the invention of the printing press (think this question was about the natural course of new media).

A: Film only had a sleeper curve from 1930-50. For video games the transition point (kickoff) was SimCity. [wish I understood the question better]

Q: Are we moving people to become savants in tese new areas -- are we improving minds in specific areas of intelligence of others?

A: He accepts that some might argue that some modes of intelligence are being developed to the detriment of others. His point isn't to argue the overall intelligence of TV/video games. Instead, he is trying to establish a beachhead in arguing that there are ways in which TV and video games are becoming more intelligent and to highlight this trend.

His previous books were fairly non-linear -- you didn't really have to read the chapters in order. For this book, it is a highly linear, sustained argument. He would not try to make the same argument in a video game or on a blog (blogs having shorter content, but very high connectivity).

Q: Multiple streams of content

A: Not talking about multitasking in the book. Zelda requires a rigorous form of thiking, you have to be focused (i.e. it's not about multitasking). Games do teach patience (many grownups trying to play one of today's games find themselves quickly frustrated).

Around the time his book was released a 'study' was popularly released that argued e-mail is more distracting than pot. The study's conclusion was more than a bit misleading: they had people take an IQ test, then they had people take an IQ test while having to deal with e-mail, and they also had people take a test while stoned. Rather than being a conclusion about e-mail, it was basically stating that you do worse on a focused IQ test when you're distracted -- once you turn off the e-mail you do just as well again. We do better thinking when we're not multitasking, but we are also maintaining more connections and potentially getting more done.

Q: Disagrees that videogames are teaching kids patience. The games are highly focused on quick rewards (every 10-15 minutes). His example was of a friend who had become deeply involved in MMORGs and wouldn't do basic house chores or other 'real life' activities. His friend's answer was that "rewards in real life don't come fast enough."

A: Johnson noted that this was a good objection, and proceeded to strengthen it with his own anecdote about a girlfriend and boyfriend, that latter who had become involved in MMORGs in the late 90s. The girlfriend saw the boyfriend less and less, until the point she decided to go over to his place and see what was going on. He was sitting in a dark room, starting at his monitor, playing. When she asked him to go out, his response was, "Can't you understand? I'm getting stronger."

Johnson had two possible counter-arguments to this, in defense of his book. (1) He's talking about trends, and TV shows today look better than Dukes of Hazzard. (2) There are neurochemical reasons that games are addicting. The seeking circuitry of the brain goes into exploration/search for rewards, which is getting tapped by videogames.

He argues for a "balanced media diet" as it is possible to lose onself in these worlds.

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