Amy Stern (bigbrotherreads) wrote,
Amy Stern
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Everything Bad is Good For You

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.


Key Excerpts:

What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food, and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of worrying about a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of agitating over wardrobe malfunctions or the f-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind. (193)

Out of obsession comes expertise, a confidence in your own powers of analysis - a sense that if you stick with the system long enough, you'll truly figure out how it works. (194)


More quotes:

If Joe Millionaire is a dreadful show that has nonetheless snookered a mass audience into watching it, then you have to compare it to shows of comparable quality and audience reach from thirty years ago for the trends to be meaningful. The relevant comparison is not between Joe Millionaire and M*A*S*H; it's between Joe Millionaire and The Price is Right, or between Survivor and The Love Boat. (90-91)

The conventional wisdom is that audiences flock to reality programming because they enjoy the prurient sight of other people being humiliated on national TV. [... F]or the most successful reality shows- Survivor or The Apprentice- the appeal is more sophisticated. That sophistication has been difficult to see, because reality programming, too, has suffered from our tendency to see emerging genres as "pseudo" versions of earlier genres, as McLuhan diagnosed. When reality programming first burst onto the scene, it was traditionally compared with the antecedent form of the documentary film. [... R]eality shows do not represent reality the way documentaries represent reality. Survivor's relationship to reality is much closer to the relationship between professional sports and reality: highly contrived, rule-governed environments where (mostly) unscripted events play out. (91-92)

Perhaps the most important thing that should be said about reality programming is that the format is reliably structured like a video game. Reality television provides the ultimate testimony to the cultural dominance of games in this moment of pop culture history. (92)

Many reality shows borrow a subtler device from gaming culture as well: the rules aren't established at the outset. You learn as you play. [...T]he participants- and the audience- know the general objective of the series, but each episode involves new challenges that haven't been ordained in advance. (92-93)

The rules and conventions of the reality genre are in flux, and that unpredictability is part of the allure. (93)

In reality TV, the revealing of the game's rules is part of the drama, a deliberate ambiguity that is celebrated and embraced by the audience. (93)

Reality programming borrowed another key ingredient from games: the intellectual labor of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities. (94)

the intrigue in watching comes from figuring out how the participants should best navigate the environment that's been created for them. The pleasure in these shows comes not from watching other human beings humiliated on national television; it comes from depositing other human beings in a complex, high-stakes environment where no established strategies exist, and watching them find their bearings. (94)

Some of that challenge comes from an ever-changing system of rules, but it also comes from the rich social geography that all reality programming explores. In this one respect, the reality shows exceed the cognitive demands of the video games (94)

Reality program participants are forced to engage face-to-face with their comrades, and that engagement invariably taps their social intelligence in ways that video games can only dream of. And that social chess becomes part of the audience's experience as well. (95)

The role of audience participation is one of those properties that often ends up neglected when the critics assess these shows. If you take reality programming to be one long extended exercise in public humiliation, then the internal monologue of most viewers would sound something like this: "Look at this poor fool - what a jackass!" Instead, I suspect those inner monologues are more likely to project the viewer into the show's world; they're participatory, if only hypothetically so: "If I were choosing who to kick off the island, I'd have to go with Richard." You assess the social geography and the current state of the rules, and you imagine how you would have played it, had you made it through the casting call. (95)

that projection is a defining part of the audience's engagement with the show. (96)

"Playing" a reality show requires you to both adapt to an ever-changing rulebook, and scheme your way through a minefield of personal relationships. To succeed in a show like The Apprentice or Survivor, you need social intelligence, not just a mastery of trivia. When we watch these shows, the part of our brain that monitors the emotional lives of the people around us [...] scrutinizes the action on screen, looking for clues. We trust certain characters implicitly, and vote others off the island in a heartbeat. Traditional narrative shows also trigger emotional connections to the characters, but those connections don't have the same participatory effect, because traditional narratives aren't explicitly about strategy. (96)

We absorb stories, but we second-guess games. Reality programming has brought that second-guessing to prime time, only the game in question revolves around social dexterity rather than the physical kind. (96-97)

At peak moments [...] the camera zooms in on the crestfallen face of the unlucky contestant, and what you see for a few fleeting seconds is something you almost never see in prime-time entertainment: a display of genuine emotion written on someone's face. The thrill of it is the thrill of something real and unplanned bursting out in the most staged and sterile of places (97)

these are people who have spent the last six months dreaming of a life-changing event, only to find at the last minute that they've fallen short. (97)

Next to that kind of emotional intensity, it's no wonder the sitcom [...] has begun to wither. (97)

what electrifies is the sense that this is actually happening. (98)

the intelligence that the reality shows draw upon is the intelligence of microseconds (98)

Humans express the full complexity of their emotions through the unspoken language of facial expressions, and we know from neuroscience that parsing that language [...] is one of the greatest achievements of the human brain. (98)

When you look at reality TV through the lens of AQ [Autism Quotient], the cognitive demands of the genre become much easier to appreciate. We had game shows to evaluate and reward our knowledge of trivia, and professional sports to reward our physical intelligence. Reality shows, in turn, challenge our emotional intelligence and our AQ. They are, in a sense, elaborately staged group psychology experiments, where at the end of the session the subjects get a million dollars and a week on the cover of People instead of a fifty-dollar stipend. The shows seem so fresh to today's audience because they tap this crucial faculty of the mind in ways that ordinary dramas or commentaries rarely do- borrowing the participatory format of the game show while simultaneously challenging our emotional IQ. The Apprentice may not be the smartest show in the history of television, but it nonetheless forces you to think while you watch it, to work through the social logic of the universe it creates on the screen. And compared with The Price is Right or Webster, it's an intellectual masterpiece. (99)

[Reality programs] engage the mind- and particularly the social mind- far more rigorously than the worst shows of the past decades. People didn't gather at the water cooler to second-guess the losing strategy on last night's Battle of the Network Stars, but they'll spend weeks debating the tactical decisions and personality tics of the Apprentice contestants. (104)

Adapting to an ever-accelerating sequence of new technologies also trains the mind to explore and master complex systems. (176)

the most effective learning takes place on the outer edges of a student's competence: building on knowledge that the student has already acquired, but challenging him with new problems to solve. (177)

as the new technologies started to roll out in shorter and shorter cycles, we grew more comfortable with the process of probing a new form of media, learning its idiosyncrasies and its distortions, its symbolic architecture and its rules of engagement. (178)

left to its own devices, following its own profit motives, the media ecosystem has been churning out popular culture that has grown steadily more complex over time. (179)

Almost every Chicken Little story about the declining standards of pop culture contains a buried blame-the-victim message: Junk culture thrives because people are naturally drawn to simple, childish pleasures. (180)

We are a problem-solving species, and when we confront situations where information needs to be filled in, or where a puzzle needs to be untangled, our minds compulsively ruminate on the problem until we've figured it out. (181)

Parents can sometimes be appalled at the hypnotic effect that television has on toddlers; they see their otherwise vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouth agape at the screen, and they assume the worst: the television is turning their child into a zombie. The same feeling arrives a few years later, when they see their grade-schoolers navigating through a video game world, oblivious to the reality that surrounds them. But these expressions are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus. (181)

Even if we accept the premise that television and games can offer genuine cognitive challenges, surely we have to admit that books challenge different, but equally important, faculties of the mind. (182-183)

most studies of reading ignore the huge explosion of reading (not to mention writing) that has happened thanks to the rise of the internet. (183)

While they ["email conversations or web-based analyses of the Apprentice"] suffer from a lack of narrative depth compared to novels, many online interactions do have the benefit of being genuinely two-way conversations: you're putting words together yourself, and not just digesting someone else's. Part of the compensation for reading less is the fact that we're writing more. (183)

yes, we're spending less time reading literary fiction, but that's because we're spending less time doing everything we used to do before. (183)

As long as reading books remains part of our cultural diet, and as long as the new popular forms continue to offer their own cognitive rewards, we're not likely to descend into a culture of mental atrophy anytime soon. (184)

we seriously overestimate the extent to which our core values are transmitted to us via the media. Most people understand that the characters on the screen are fictitious ones, and their flaws are there to amuse and entertain us, and not give us ethical guidance. (188)

That some of the culture today does push at the boundaries of acceptable or healthy moral values shouldn't surprise us, because it is in the nature of myth and storytelling to explore the edges of a society's accepted beliefs and conventions. [...W]hen we see the popular culture exploring behavior that many see as morally bankrupt, we need to remind ourselves that deviating from an ethical norm is not juts an old story. In a real sense, it's where stories begin. (189)

more complex popular entertainment is creating minds that are adept at certain kinds of problem-solving. (190)

the content of most entertainment has less of an impact than the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do. (190)

By any measure, the content of a 24 episode is more violent and disturbing than an episode of My Three Sons. But 24 makes the viewer think in ways that earlier shows never dared; it makes them analyze complex situations, track social networks, fill in information withheld by the creators. [...T]he mental exercise they undergo in watching these shows or playing these games is not fiction. (190-191)

Yes, the trends are toward more media complexity; yes, games and television shows and films have cognitive rewards that we should better understand and value. But some of those cultural works are more rewarding than others. (193)

What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food, and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of worrying about a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of agitating over wardrobe malfunctions or the f-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind. (193)

If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them to watch Survivor over Fear Factor. (193-194)

it might be just as helpful to have a rating system that uses mental labor and not obscenity and violence as its classification scheme for the world of mass culture. (194)

For parents, if your selection principle is built around cognitive challenge, and not content, then you needn't limit your child's media intake to Jim Lehrer and NOVA; the popular culture is supplying plenty of vigorous cognitive work-outs on its own. (194)

Out of obsession comes expertise, a confidence in your own powers of analysis - a sense that if you stick with the system long enough, you'll truly figure out how it works. (194)

Most of the defining popular diversions of our time- Pixar movies, The Lord of the Rings, Survivor- possess genuine appeal for ten-year-olds, GenX-ers, and boomers alike. (195)

Too often we imagine the blurring of kid and grownup culture as a series of violations. [...] But this demographic blur has a commendable side that we don't acknowledge enough. The kids are forced to think like grownups: analyzing complex social networks, managing resources, tracking subtle narrative intertwinings, recognizing long-term patterns. The grownups, in turn, get to learn from the kids: decoding each new technological wave, parsing the interfaces, and discovering the intellectual rewards of play. Parents should see this as an opportunity, not a crisis. Smart culture is no longer something you force your kids to ingest, like green vegetables. It's something you share. (195-196)


Interesting references:

Havrilesky, Heather. Three Cheers for Reality Television. Salon. September 13, 2004.


My feelings on this book/on my project:

This book is a lot more academic than a few of the texts I looked at (basically any official or unofficial fan companion), but less academic than most of the others (anything that might even tangentially be considered theory). You would think this would be a nice middle ground, and it's... kind of not.

I got the feeling that the author watched exactly three reality shows (Fear Factor, The Apprentice, and Survivor) and made a lot of rash generalizations from that experience. He also basically frames all of this as "even the crap has improved" (91). (Yes, that's a direct quote.) I'm kind of defensive to begin with from that, because the value judgments being made are pretty glaring, and it's kind of frustrating to do all of this research and constantly feel like even books specifically dedicated to the topic are assuming that it's interesting because of how bad it is.

The thing I liked about this book, however, is that it included actual textual analysis. The most frustrating part of the other books, by and large, is that they do one of two things. The fluff books just recount what happened, even though realistically, anyone who's reading an official Survivor companion knows how the season went down. The "deeper" ones seem to almost exclusively psychoanalyze the fans- or, rather, what they perceive the fans to be like, which may or may not have anything to do with who the fans actually are. Almost every examination of the "texts" hinges on the flawed idea that the sociological reactions of the audience are more important than the text itself. The focus on the viewer rather than on the text itself indicates a lack of respect for the source text being analyzed.

(I'm sure there are lots of interesting discussions to be had over whether or not the text of a reality show could support a close reading, and while I firmly believe it could, I'm aware that's not my goal at the moment.)

The textual analysis in this book isn't deep, but it at least acknowledges there's a text that exists away from the sociology of the audience. I don't agree with everything stated in the book, and I think a lot of it's overly simplistic, but there's something to start from. This text would have benefited from actual textual citations- that is, rather than just abstractly referencing events from reality shows, quoting specific lines, or at least referencing specific events less iconic than "Richard Hatch won Survivor" or "Omarosa invited controversy."

In fact, the only place I've found reflections on specific events applied to a wider context is on the DVD commentaries, by the former contestants themselves. This is problematic on several levels, although does add to the odds that interviews would be the best place to pursue this project.

Anyway. I do think that a few of the ideas from this are helpful, either for justifying this project or for giving me baselines from which to start. It didn't really suggest anything I don't know (the biggest revelation in this was "viewers enjoy reality television for strategy!", which I was already aware of, thanks), but it does give me a textual basis for where I'm going from, which I guess is good. I have no actual critical cred to stand on, and this book theoretically has some credentials.

I've been wondering how much I, as a person, am part of what I'm ultimately trying to tell here. I can't divorce it from the way that I pretty much looked down on reality television until the summer of '06, at which point I fell into it so hard I probably bruised myself. And I fell immediately into the more critical viewing contingent: Fall of 06, I desperately wanted to commission a linguistic study of the Big Brother house and fanbase to see how language changes within a closed system and then how it spreads to people who are following it. Plus, like I've said all along, I feel like watching Big Brother with the live feeds gave me such a clearer view of media bias. I've been trying to think of how to explore that without bringing myself into the story, but maybe the answer is that I am actually part of it.

The problem, essentially, is that I have I two things I'm just about equally interested in, which are very different projects, and which are both viable but not particularly overlapping. Serious textual analysis of reality programs, possibly accompanied by a pedagogical exploration of how watching reality editing can be useful in teaching about media bias, is more of an adult theory text. If I'm being honest, as interesting as I've been finding the research I've been doing, the young adult nonfiction doesn't really need most of the books I've looked at. While I am incredibly fascinated by those, the more important focus I should be maintaining is a much less dense one. On some level, this project boils down to a television-companion version of one of those "secrets of the magician" books.

They can't pull a rabbit out of a hat, but they can take hundreds of cameras and microhones recording virtually everything for 80 days and transform it into thirty relatively coherent 42-minute programs which are equally appealing to someone who's been following on the computer all week and someone who's just decided to watch the show for the first time because they've seen this episode of Ugly Betty already.


New, probably more realistic game plan, which actually disappoints me despite being significantly less mentally taxing:

  • find a few specific examples from the two television programs I'm focusing on, to illuminate each of the topics I intend to cover

  • look for quotes from the participants, rather than theorists, except (maybe?) for a chapter on ways the shows can be analyzed beyond just seeing through some of the "tricks"

  • conduct my own interviews


Because otherwise I am afraid I may break my own heart, I think it would be reasonable to incorporate at least a little Foucault or Baudrillard into some of that. Or at least some Andrejevic. Right?
Tags: everything bad is good for you, planning, quotes, research: theory
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