In Everything Bad Is Good For You, technology writer Steven Johnson turns on its head the prevailing notion that popular culture is getting progressively stupider as it panders to the simple-minded masses. Hawking a theory he calls the "Sleeper Curve" Johnson argues that not only is pop culture getting smarter and more complicated - responding to a demand for increased stimuli from an increasingly sophisticated audience - it's also making people smarter.
That seems pretty far-fetched, to be sure. But Johnson makes some good points, especially with that first assertion. For instance, he compares the 1980s series Hill Street Blues with today's Sopranos, showing how much more complex and sophisticated the latter is, judging by the number of intermingling narratives employed in episodes of each and by the relative absence of what he calls "flashing arrows" (obvious clues provided to keep the viewer following along).
And it's not the just vanguard shows that are getting smarter. Joe Millionaire may be dreck, but compare it to The Price Is Right, he suggests. Compare Survivor to The Love Boat. In terms of complexity and the demands made on viewers, the difference is clear.
Johnson's arguments that pop culture is making us smarter are compelling, though less strong. He shines when he writes about how, despite their condemnation by fretting parents and preachers, today's enormously complicated, open-ended, non-linear video games are teaching kids (and adults) skills and ways of thinking that book-learnin' could only dream of. He also points to a unilateral leap in IQ scores in the United States over the last few decades and -- logically eliminating several other factors -- pins it to the effects of popular culture.
Johnson leaves to the moralists those arguments about violence and smutty content. This isn't a parenting handbook or a philosophical treatise. But as a scholarly musing on the ways in which our culture engages us, it's positively revolutionary.