Popular Culture or Not: Your Choice

by Tatchai Ruangrattanatavorn

It is now the 21st century, and we’re living in the Age of Technology. Progress has been very rapid, and within a few decades, many advanced machines and tools have been created, followed by new forms of entertainment that meet society’s needs. There’s no doubt that almost everyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, knows what television, movies, videogames, and the Internet are. These things, along with many other forces, make up modern American popular culture. Then come the consequences. Many people say that popular culture has been deteriorating our intellectual abilities and that it also has negative influences on our society as well. How do we know that this is true? Are videogames, television shows, movies, and the Internet actually making us stupid?

    Steven Johnson wrote Everything Bad is Good for You in response to public antagonism against modern popular culture, arguing that these forces are, in fact, nutritious after all. Given the generational aspect of these suspicions, however, we’ve only been hearing a one-sided perspective and negative criticisms of the video-based culture. In order to make wise decisions about whether to embrace or combat the consequences of rapid technological change, we should at least hear what the other side has to say first.

    Johnson definitely demonstrates the credibility and authority to argue his position effectively. According to Leigh Bureau, Johnson as both social critic and technologist, is no futurist, but rather is able to see emerging trends that are relevant to our lives and explain them before anyone else. He lectures widely on technological, scientific, and cultural issues, has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and co-founded FEED, Plastic.com, and outside.in. His earlier books reveal a diversity of interest and expertise. The Ghost Map explains the emergence of modern public health. The Invention of Air explains how innovative ideas emerge and spread, shaping our modern world. The Interface Culture explains how technology transforms society, predicting the rise of the blogosphere correctly. Mind Wide Open explains how brain science is yielding new understandings of the human personality. No wonder that Everything Bad is Good for You follows the same style and trend, as the first major book to argue in favor of modern popular culture.

    As the world continues to berate popular culture as the good-for-nothing, principal contributor to the decline in our intelligence, Johnson counters that “popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years” in order to clarify public misconceptions and to present the subject in a different light (xv). Throughout the book, the tone is that of a friend, a proponent, speaking to us in casual occasions, trying to share his ideas and thoughts on certain issues, unlike the didactic tone of an authority figure or lecturer demonstrating his knowledge to the uninformed. The core position is that video games are becoming more complex and thus making us smarter because they force us to exercise our intellectual labor as we make decisions in the virtual world.

    In order to illustrate his point, Johnson uses famous and common games such as SimCity as examples. As complex videogames force us to think in new ways, we become smarter: “It’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re playing a game, it’s the way you’re thinking that matters” (40). Therefore, the content of the game does not matter as long as it challenges you to think. The beliefs attack the simplistic assumption that only reading is good, and in order to qualify his argument and gain credibility, he acknowledges the counterargument that reading is of absolute importance and adds that “nonliterary popular culture is honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books” (23).

    As for television, Johnson claims that it is also getting more intricate than ever but still not as much as videogames because of the degree of passivity associated with TV watching (63). The components of complexity that have risen in television programs in the past few decades are multiple threading, flashing arrows, and social networks (65). Johnson uses a graphic visual to compare between television programs of different times, demonstrating a clear contrast between the complexities of plotlines. As usual, he centers the examples on common programs, such as The Sopranos, The Simpsons, South Park, Scrubs, and Lost to engage contemporary readers. Such programs require the audience to “fill in” the missing pieces (83), and as audiences get used to doing that, “flashing arrows” are no longer needed to explain what is going on (73), whereas previous generations of television programming included more internal plot cues. Reality shows, Johnson claims, require audiences to probe the environment and solve problems as puzzles do (94) and develop “split second intelligence,” as viewers recognize the facial expressions of characters, a facility which can be measured as AQ or autism quotient (98), a concept related to emotional intelligence borrowed from the field of psychology (98).

    The Internet, according to Johnson, challenges our mind “by virtue of being participatory, by forcing users to learn new interfaces, and by creating new channels for social interaction” (117–18). Johnson illustrates the concepts of participation and social interaction by using examples such as email, IM, and blogging, citing the statistic that approximately 270,000 blog entries are published each day (119), and concluding with the claim that the Internet allows us to connect in different ways, instead of more antisocial technologies such as television (124).

    Everything usually comes in pairs, good and bad, agreement and opposition, and there is no exception in the debate on the effects of videogames on our society. David E. Newton’s Violence and the Media cites many studies on the effects of televised violence and aggressive behavior. In one longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, from the 1960s to the 1990s, researchers studied whether or not children who watched more violent television would grow up and engage in aggressive behavior as adults, with a sample size of 875 third-graders (29). The conclusion was startling. The accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior—that is, heavy viewers behave more aggressively than light viewers. Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programs also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to resolve conflicts. Their correlations are solid. They remain even when many other potential influences on viewing and aggression are controlled, including education level, social class, aggressive attitudes, parental behavior, and sex-role identity (30).

    On the other hand, three of the four television network studies found that there was no evidence that violence on television causes aggressive behavior by viewers. Two of these studies were later reexamined because of methodological flaws (36).

    Two more studies confirm the conclusion that violent media make people numb to the pain and sufferings of others. In the first study, when asked to fill a questionnaire while hearing a fight that involved an injured person, participants who played violent a video game for 20 minutes took longer to help the victim, rated the fight as less serious, and were less likely to hear the fight. In the second study, when witnessing an injured person, participants who just watched a violent movie also took longer to help, corroborating conclusion mentioned above. A political cartoon drawn by J.D. Crowe implies the same theory, but somewhat differently. The cartoon argues that violence in television, movies, and videogames contribute to violence in reality, but not as the source of violence itself since there are also other more significant contributing factors that initiate the violence. These factors that lead to violence in real life, as suggested in the cartoon by the order of chain events, are the availability of guns, lax gun laws, permissive parenting, anger, and then violence in television, movies, and videogames. Without these crucial, tangible factors, violence in real life would not occur in equal magnitude, but arguably, the same claim can be made if there were no violence in the media.

    From another point of view, videogames could be viewed as an art form. As Judith Galas put it, “Computer games are art—a popular art, an emerging art, a largely unrecognized art, but art nevertheless.” This perspective is still controversial, of course, but videogames have demanded vivid graphics, rapid processing, greater memory, and better sound. In The Seven Lively Arts, Gilbert Seldes, a leading literary and arts critic, argues that popular forms such as jazz, the Broadway musical, Hollywood cinema, and the comic strip have gained cultural respectability over the past 75 years, implying that videogames should have the same privilege before they can be judged objectively.

    On the other hand, videogames, together with computers and the Internet, could have other social consequences. As people immerse themselves into cyberspace, indicators find them increasingly difficult to separate real life from virtual existence. As Processor Timothy Ferris of Berkeley puts it, “[They] will be able to watch grandmothers be shot by snipers in Sarajevo from six camera angles without leaving [their] couches . . .” Another problem that the Internet might cause is social isolation, and in short, as Norman Nie, a political scientist at Stanford University, says, “The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings.” Some critics have disputed these claims as biased.

    So does popular culture really make us smarter? In a way, it does. Even though videogames, television shows, computers, and the Internet are just virtual reality, they still offer us a different prospective to our physical reality. For example, the world in Grand Theft Auto might just be a simulation, but it gives us an experience from a different angle. On the other hand, it is nothing like real life for most people. Playing basketball on Xbox won’t make you become an NBA star one day. But there are so many experiences in the world that shape who we are and what we will become, and these new experiences are what making us smarter and adept at adjusting to our complex society. And because there are different kinds of intelligences, there are other significant aspects for us to consider. Certainly, being smart is a great thing, but we must realize that conventional intelligence is not everything needed for a successful, fulfilling life. The most important thing, it could be argued, is to be aware that we’re human beings. We’ve transcended the limitations of other living creatures not only because of our brains, but also because of our moral conscience. We can choose to play and watch as many violent videogames and movies as we want, but we must be conscious of our morals and constantly avoid doing harm to others. Only in this way will we not degrade our own species and hope to prosper.

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