»  National Review Online

May 25th, 2005

  Pop Culture is … Nourishing


The other day my son asked me: "Dad, was Trajan a good emperor?"

The boy is nine years old. I was hoping that it would be a few years yet before he saw through my pose of omniscience. No, he's on to me now. I didn't have a clue whether or not Trajan was a good emperor, though it is one of those highly annoying things that I must have known at some time, what with four years of school Latin and a lifetime of reading historical novels.

The boy has been playing a computer game called Age of Empires, and for some reason it has worked on his imagination so much that he now spends all his time thinking about the ancient world. Pleased with this, I bought him a couple of books (this one, and this one), and by obsessively reading and re-reading them, he has committed them to memory, the way children can. I am wondering whether I should try to start him on Latin.

It is things like this that make you wonder about pop culture. My position on this has, until recently, been the default position of most fifty-somethings in all times and places: that the quality of our amusements has been sliding downhill since about, oh, 20 or 25 years ago. Just recently on The Corner I compared the over-hyped and vapid Star Wars movies with the far superior sci-fi productions of my own youth — Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, Pohl and Kornbluth, Brian Aldiss and John Wyndham. And Star Wars is obnoxious only for being shallow and pretentious. Rap music? Desperate Housewives? Quentin Tarantino? National Review will sell you a mug with my picture on it and the legend: POP CULTURE IS FILTH.

Some of it is, to be sure. What's the balance, though? I just spend a quiet couple of hours reading Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You. Johnson makes the case that a lot of pop culture — the book covers computer games, TV shows, movies and the Internet — is giving our collective intelligence a workout, with beneficial effect. Computer games nowadays are (he argues) subtle, demanding, and very complex, and increasingly so on all counts. Far from these games being mere mind-pap offering instant gratification, the amount of patience and sheer brainpower you have to deploy in order to win the Dragon Master Sword (or whatever) is a thorough schooling in delayed gratification and the rewards of persistence and problem-solving. Similarly, TV shows have gotten subtler and deeper, making demands on both reasoning and emotional intelligence, and requiring us to appreciate fleeting imbedded tags to a vast range of cultural references from both within and without a show's own "world."

There is more to the book than that, and I recommend you try it for yourself — it's well written, well researched, and not very long. I'll admit didn't buy the author's arguments at first. In part this was because, for complicated reasons I shall not go in to, I was stuck yesterday evening in a room where the TV was showing a rerun of Friends, a show I would normally leap from a high cliff to avoid. I wasn't in the room in order to watch the show, but couldn't help taking some of it in — enough to track down the actual episode on a fan website just now. Here's the synopsis from that site.

Everybody toasts the engagement. Phoebe wants to be the musician at the wedding. Joey prepares for an audition where he must play a 19-year-old. After Chandler can't get it up for Monica, he worries about the consequences. Ross and Rachel debate a "bonus night." Monica catches them kissing and thinks Rachel is trying to steal her night.

All right, all right, if you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you'll like. It's thin gruel, though. In fact, if you remove all the references to the sex act and its immediate penumbra of behaviors and dysfunctions (mating, dating, engagements, weddings, pregnancies, ED, PMS, etc.), it is pretty much clear water. Are you going to tell me that this is more mentally stimulating than the old Mary Tyler More show? Not to mention Cymbeline, or The Marriage of Figaro (concerning which latter, a London opera critic once suggested that Covent Garden should offer a full ticket refund to anyone who could explain what is happening in the last act).

Johnson untangles all this and makes a decent case. He is well read on all the relevant topics, though he stumbles a bit when discussing IQ, obviously being in the grip of the opinion-elite dogma that IQ is a slightly disreputable concept, yet being unable to discuss the thing he wants to discuss without bringing it in.

What he wants to discuss is the Flynn effect, which I have covered myself on NRO. This is the slow upward drift of average IQ scores throughout the 20th century, first demonstrated by New Zealand psychometrician James Flynn back in the 1980s. The most likely explanation for this phenomenon is the increasing cognitive demands made on us by our surroundings, including our common entertainments. Hold on, though. Didn't Middlemarch make some pretty strenuous demands on its readers 130 years ago? Yes, but as Steven Johnson shows, there weren't actually that many of those readers relative to the general population. It is not the cognitive elites whose IQs are being elevated by the Flynn effect so much as those of us in the middle bulge of the Bell Curve.

Everything Bad is one of those books that you feel a bit suspicious of because it tells the lazy man what he is glad to hear. (Here's the classic in that particular genre.) If you are a parent, you know all too well that preventing kids from spending every minute of their free time in front of a flickering screen (computer or TV) demands constant vigilance and effort. A lot of people will take Steven Johnson's message as: "Hey, you don't have to bother!" In fact he is much more thoughtful than that, and wants kids to do some book reading in among their gaming and TV-watching.

And I think he is probably correct, on balance, when he writes: "The culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less." As I was passing through my son's room on the way to my study, the lad tried to draw me in to Age of Empires. "Look, Dad — see this here? It's a ballista. Watch me hit that Carthaginian …" Blimey, I didn't know about ballistas and Carthaginians at age nine.

Nor is it just incidental facts these kids are acquiring. As Johnson writes, they know how to program a VCR not because they've memorized the instructions for every model on the market: "They know how to program a VCR because they've learned general rules for probing and exploring a piece of technology, rules that come in handy no matter what model VCR you put in front of them." That is right. The kids aren't just getting facts, nor even merely skills: they are getting meta-skills. My wife bought me this new cellphone three months ago, and I've only just figured out how to store names in the directory. When I lent the thing to my 12-year-old daughter for a school day trip, she racked up $20 of Instant Messaging charges. I don't even know what Instant Messaging is, and have no clue how to do it on my cellphone. Computer games? I have never advanced beyond Freecell, and am not very good at that.

For us fiftysomethings it's all a bit depressing. If Johnson is right — as I suspect he is — our kids, under the stimulating pressure of ever shorter technology cycles, are going to go steaming past us in cognitive abilities, leaving us choking on their dust. Teenagers have, of course, always regarded their parents' painfully accumulated lifetime's wisdom as being irrelevant, our cherished beliefs antiquated, our fondest memories as remote as the Bronze Age. Now this contempt must be getting deeper, and it must be setting in at an earlier age.

The kids will be wrong, of course, their contempt misplaced. Some waters you can only taste by falling into them. How can I expect my nine-year-old to believe me about that, though, when I don't even know whether or not Trajan was a good emperor?