I read through Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, and I was wrong — it’s nothing like Bordwell, mainly in that it doesn’t make me weep with boredom. The first half of the book adroitly illustrates the extent to which thinking of video games and television as mindless entertainment is wrong, wrong, wrong. When we play a video game like Psychonauts, we’re juggling a bucketful of tasks and subtasks while manipulating multiple bodies in space and keeping a huge map in our heads; when we watch a TV show like Lost, we’re following a staggering number of interwoven plot threads and characters over a period of months, or even years. This sort of evolution in pop culture belies the conventional wisdom, the idea that our engagement with these media causes us to switch our brains off.

The second part of the book is a little sketchier in its arguments. Johnson notes that IQ scores in America have steadily risen over the last 50 years, across a wide range of demographic axes (race, gender, etc.), and speculates that a part of this rise can be attributed to the increasing complexity of pop culture. But as Johnson concedes, IQ is hardly the best or only indicator of intelligence, and besides, verifying a correlation between media consumption and IQ scores seems like a pretty impossible task. Johnson also avoids questions of values and morality in media, which, especially with the whole Hot Coffee brouhaha that’s making the rounds, seems to be the front on which most of the fights over popular media are being fought these days. Still, one book can’t claim to answer all the questions, and Everything Bad does make a compelling case for its main argument (and it’s a smooth, enjoyable read to boot), so I’m not going to complain much.

Next on my reading list: James Paul Gee’s influential book on games and learning, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. And if anyone has any other reading recommendations in the “pop culture is good” category, please, send them my way.